KNOWING that I would push myself with respect to terrain and distance in the first half of my April 2019 trip, I had anticipated that I would feel somewhat tired towards the end of it. Accordingly, the last three days were all much shorter walks, coming in at just under fifteen miles each. This meant that I had no issues about trying to cram x miles into only y hours and so could afford to have a lie-in and catch up on some Zzz.
At a far more civilised hour than I had recently been experiencing, I awoke and ambled out in search of breakfast. Then, when adequately fuelled, I ventured outside to see what Poolewe had to offer me.
Poolewe (Poll Iù) actually means ‘the pool on the River Ewe’ although the etymology of the ‘Ewe’ part is uncertain. The pool in question is the embayment of Loch Ewe into which the river empties, so if I wanted to see it, I was facing the wrong way. As problems go, this was not a biggie.
Turning back to the street, I walked to the end of it, where the B8057 met the A832. Since it was still inside a settlement, it had pedestrian pavement, which saved me from dodging traffic for a bit. The A-road immediately carried me eastwards, over the River Ewe (Abhainn Iù) on a bridge rebuilt in the 1930s. The river is quite short, just two miles in length, and drains Loch Maree (Loch Ma-ruibhe) into Loch Ewe.
Loch Maree is named for Irish missionary St Maelrubha (642–722), who built a chapel on one of its islands. In consequence of his involvement, its waters were once said to have curative effects and submersion in them was said to cure insanity.
On the other side of the river was more Poolewe, albeit not very much. I was ambling along what was basically a shore road when a sign distracted me into a brief diversion. For up a side-road was Poolewe Burial Ground and, in it, I found this:
The thing above is the Poolewe Stone, so-named because it’s a stone in Poolewe. Specifically, it’s a Pictish stone, inscribed with a V-and-crescent symbol that was often carved by the Picts but which we don’t know the meaning of. They made many such stones between the 6th and 9th centuries but most of the surviving ones are on Scotland’s east coast, not the west. In fact, this is one of only two on the west coast, the other being in Gairloch Heritage Museum.
The Poolewe Stone’s Pictishness was discovered in 1992, though it had presumably lain there, unremarked, for a thousand years before that.
Another stone, smaller and unfenced, sat nearby. It didn’t have mysterious Pictish markings but it did have small hollow in it which contained water and is said never to dry out. It’s also said to cure warts. We shall never know if it cures insanity Loch Maree-style, as it doesn’t hold more than an eggcupful.
Inverewe House & Garden
My curiosity satisfied, I returned to the A-road and followed it along the shore. The pedestrian pavement ended at the edge of the village, where a turn-off could have taken me to Inverewe Garden, in the grounds of Inverewe House. Unlike the Poolewe Stone, neither are ancient, having been constructed by landowner Osgood Mackenzie (1842-1922) in 1862 on what had until then been barren ground.
His original house, which was built in Scottish Baronial style, burnt down in 1914. A replacement was built in 1937 and is altogether plainer, having been built in a then-contemporary style with clean lines and square-paned windows.
A832 Coast Road
Along the A-Road
As I said, a turn-off could have taken me to Inverewe Gardens but they were closed and I had other things to do. Such as amble along the A832, which was delightfully tree-lined at this point and, more importantly, not busy. When the roads were first classified in 1922, this section was actually made the B859 but it was upgraded within the first decade and the B-number recycled somewhere else.
The road seemed to thread its way through the trees for some time, though in truth it was only about a mile. My decision to make the day a short walk was a wise one, I realised, because I was starting it at a weary plod.
Lochan na Bà Caoile
Somehow, though, that realisation spurred me into a more convincing semblance of life, and I was striding along with gusto as I left the trees behind and passed Lochan na Bà Caoile (‘tarn of the thin cow’). This was little more than a strip of water alongside the road but is still almost twice the size it is on old maps, having been dammed with concrete at some point in the latter half of the 20th century.
Loch nan Dailthean
A little further on, and on the other side of the road, was a larger body of freshwater — Loch nan Dailthean (‘loch of the meadows’) — although even this was only half a mile long.
Just beyond the loch was the farm of Tournaig (Tùrnaig, ‘rounded hillock’) and just beyond that was a spot where I sat down for a rest.
After a while, I heard a noise behind me and found all the ewes I could have wanted, clustered in a knot for safety, staring at my back with nervous eyes. I had no idea I’d been sitting in such a menacing fashion.
‘Behhhh,’ bleated one of them, suddenly. I shook my head.
‘No, silly sheep, I’m not a bear.’
She wasn’t having it. ‘Behhh,’ she insisted, ‘behhhh…’
While the sheep had been staring at me, deciding that I must be ursine, I’d been looking at what were clearly old concrete gun emplacements.
The emplacements date to WW2 and, despite what the sheep would have you believe, they were air defences, not bear defences.
Specifically, they were four 3.7″ heavy anti-aircraft guns with a central command post. Back in the day there were also accommodation huts and a radar antenna, not to mention barrage balloons. This may seem like a lot of defence for a loch in the middle of nowhere but Loch Ewe had just the right combination of shelter, breadth and depth to make it a perfect assembly point for the Russian Arctic Convoys.
From Tournaig, the road ascended, climbing from 10 to 50 m in about a quarter of a mile. It then more-or-less levelled off, topping out at a viewpoint at 74 m. This gave a slightly hazy view of Loch Ewe below but I found my eye drawn to the south-east, where I saw misty mountains cold.
Isle of Ewe
The A-road twisted and turned along the flank of the 181 m hill Meall Sùil a’ Chròtha (‘rounded hill of the fold’s eye’), for the most part giving good views over Loch Ewe and, by extension, the Isle of Ewe ( Eilean Iùbh) that sits within it.
The island was entirely wooded in the 16th century but had been cultivated by the 19th. Most of its inhabitants left during WW2, when the loch was in use by the Arctic Convoys, and today a single family tenants the island, farming its southernmost half. There are no longer any woods.
There may not have been any woods on the Isle of Ewe but there was a small one on the mainland that got between the loch and the road. Partway along that particular stretch, I passed a small roadside shrine of flowers marking, I assume, a spot where someone met an unexpected automotive end.
With a more watchful eye on the traffic than I had had, I continued on my way…
Loch Ewe Oil Fuel Depot
Before long, I spotted evidence that Loch Ewe’s naval involvement isn’t entirely historic — it still possesses a refuelling jetty for use by NATO vessels. The road passed above this and then curved its way across and down a valley, passing as it did the access road to the oil fuel depot.
A short distance later, I was turning off the A-road into the village of Aultbea.
Aultbea & Mellon Charles
Aultbea (An t-Allt Beithe ‘birch stream’) is a small fishing village blessed with both a hotel and a shop, or so I’d read. Indeed, thanks to not finding anything closer to Laide, I fully planned to stay in that hotel later. This was slightly annoying, as the rest of my walk was essentially three sides of a rectangle and I’d have to walk the fourth side too to get back to the hotel. But not getting back to it would doubtless be more annoying still.
Aultbea Clapper Bridge
It was late morning shading towards lunchtime by now, and I toyed with the idea of getting a drink at the hotel, except its bar was clearly closed. Well, okay, some places don’t open for drinks until midday and I wasn’t that bothered. I’d found an old bridge to distract me:
The shop, which I found at the other end of the village, most definitely was open, and I sat down with a cold drink and something to eat beside Aultbea’s harbour.
Ormiscaig & Mellon Charles
A little food and rest go a long way. Or perhaps that should be that I go a long way on a little food and rest? In either case, I was soon up and on my feet again, following the shore road through Ormiscaig (Ormasgaig) and around the bay towards Mellon Charles (Meallan Thèarlaich, ‘Charles’s hillock’).
On the way, I encountered a local lad who observed the walking poles and bag I was carrying and asked how far I planned to walk. I saw no reason not to tell him, so I did, and he nodded appreciatively. I then added that I had to then walk back to the Aultbea Hotel. He frowned at this and asked if I had a booking? I did have a booking. I also, thanks largely to his expression, had a growing sense of unease. This proved well-founded.
The hotel, it turned out, had suddenly closed down. I would piece together the details from snippets provided by several people over the next couple of days (no one does gossip like small villages)…
It had been in business when I’d booked, some three weeks earlier, but it had been in serious trouble for some time. A once-thriving business, it had been bought by people who, from the sound of it, may have wanted a perpetual holiday rather than a gruelling business. Consequently, they’d not been doing well.
And then, just a few days before — on the Saturday morning, while I was blissfully walking through Lochcarron, in fact — the owner, David Chalom, had phoned his breakfast staff to say he wouldn’t be cooking breakfast because he’d gone abroad and wouldn’t be coming back. Oh, and could they tell all the guests to leave too?
Taking It Surprisingly Well
If this is what actually happened, then I have not the words. It’s one thing to go under; that can happen to any business. It’s quite another to dump that on your staff. Who are in fact now your ex-staff, much to their surprise. And speaking of surprise, I’m told the guests took it ‘surprisingly well’.
I also took the news that I didn’t actually have somewhere to stay that night after all with better grace and more calm than I might have expected. For a start, I desperately hoped the lad was mistaken, but a couple of chats with other locals I met out and about soon disabused me of that notion.
Okay, Now I’m Annoyed
I mean, I was definitely annoyed. They’d taken a deposit and had made no effort to tell me (or anyone else) what had happened apart — I later learned — from a note on the hotel door. And, now that I think about it, even that would be there care of those unfortunate staff, not the owner. Grrr!
So, yeah, I was annoyed, but I wasn’t unduly worried. It was early enough in the season that I might still be lucky with a B&B and, if not, I was pretty sure that Poolewe wasn’t fully booked, if I could get a lift back there. In any event, I was determined to continue to enjoy my day’s walk. I would look for somewhere else to stay later.
Propelled by my anger, I positively stormed along and soon reached Mellon Charles.
At the end of the road was, bizarrely, a Perfume Studio. Because why not?
The Perfume Studio had a café attached — the Aroma Café — which seemed pretty popular (one of the locals I’d accosted to ask about the hotel was on his way there with visiting family). This provided further drinks, proper food and another batch of confirmations that the hotel was dead as a dodo.
Text & Telephony
Unexpectedly, the café also provided phone signal so long as I stood outside in one particular spot and didn’t move more than two metres in any direction. This was enough to call a friend who’d sent me a text message and I took the time to just sit there and chat, looking down at Loch Ewe and generally refusing to get stressed.
Meall Camas an Fhèidh
Actually, this part of the walk was always going to involve a small amount of refusing to be stressed. The road had ended at the perfume factory and a track continued up nearby Meall Camas an Fhèidh (‘deer bay hill’). This wasn’t too steep and only had 90 m to climb to reach the summit but I knew that, when it did, it too would end and then I’d have no path at all to follow.
I don’t normally do pathless trailblazing; I much prefer to have a trail to follow. I resolved to enjoy the one I’d got while I still had it.
Another Anti-Aircraft Battery
On the top of Meall Camas an Fhèidh were some concrete foundations that revealed why someone had once built a metalled track to its top. It was the site of a WW2 light anti-aircraft battery, part of Loch Ewe’s formidable ring of defences. I dithered for a bit, looking at this and at the view back down to Loch Ewe.
It seems pretty and peaceful sitting on a hilltop on a walking trip but for the servicemen stationed around Loch Ewe, the isolation was a problem. It coupled the stress of assembling and defending the convoys with the silent, empty boredom of having nothing to do for months at a time. This was particularly hard on those who had come from cities. An informative sign near Aultbea had quoted a wartime medic on the subject:
‘When you’ve been here for six months, you start talking to yourself; after twelve months you start talking to the sheep and after eighteen months, the sheep start talking to you!’
I had no idea that sheep were so shy.
Slaggan (To and From It)
The High Ground
I could only procrastinate for so long on top of Meall Camas an Fhèidh. I now had just a mile to go to reach the ruined remains of the hamlet of Slaggan (‘little hollow’). I had been told by helpful locals to stick to the high ground so I resolved to stay on the top of the hill as long as I could.
The uniformity of opinion that I should adopt this approach suggested to me that walking to Slaggan was something that happened a lot and that, while there might not be an ‘official’ path, I could probably expect to see some sort of evidence that others had walked that way before me. It was, I realised, not going to be as pathless as all that.
Conducted by Cairns
It was, as one might expect, a tad boggy but I kept to the highest of the high ground and quickly found that my assumptions were borne out. I passed first one small cairn and then another and spotted a third one in the distance. Not only was I following the route advised but some thoughtful predecessor had taken the trouble to mark it out for guidance.
Also, here and there on the ground, I could see a faint trail made by previous feet.
And so, picking my way along the high ground from cairn to cairn, I made my way along the top of the hill. As I did so, the ground cover changed from tufty grass and heather to the charred remains of the same.
A couple of days earlier a wildfire had raged over these hilltops, stripping away the vegetation and leaving a blanket of ash. This was eerie, as the aftermath of such fires often is, but it made it twice as easy to pick out the faint trail. Accordingly, I picked up my pace.
The path became a little less clear further on, so that I couldn’t see the next cairn. I thus lost the trail a couple of times but simply picked it up again by heading in the right direction until a cairn made itself visible. It didn’t take long before I approached a steep hillside dropping down into a valley. There, about 80 m below, I could see the ruins of Slaggan.
The trail, such as it was, appeared to drop down a slope that I didn’t trust my knee to handle without protest. So, keeping its position in mind, I found a shallower, if slightly longer, route by which to descend.
At the bottom, it was pretty boggy but the way forward was clear as it passed through a gate in a fence.
On the far side, I found the ruins of Slaggan’s stone cottages.
Unlike so many abandoned Highland villages, Slaggan was not a victim of the Clearances — the Mackenzies of Gairloch refused to evict their tenants — but simply fell victim to emigration over time due to changing patterns of labour. By the 1930s, only six people lived there, all others having moved away in search of work elsewhere.
The gabled house dates from this period, having been built in 1936 and burnt down in the 1940s, allegedly by careless sailors sheltering from the elements while out hiking.
Great Bard of Slaggan
Even at its height, Slaggan was never more than tiny but the same cannot be said of one of its inhabitants. I’ve found several references to Alexander Grant (c. 1742-c.1820), known as ‘the Great Bard of Slaggan’ (Bard Mòr an t-Slaggan) not because of his apparently middling compositions but because he was a giant of a man, possessed of great muscular strength. He was born in Mellon Charles and saw out his last days at Tournaig but spent most of the years in between living in Slaggan.
In addition to his impressive physique and unremarkable poetry, the Great Bard appears to have been rather canny. He built up a reputation for having the Second Sight, by the simple expedient of being smart about it. One amusing anecdote I came across concerns a man in Lochcarron who had some cheeses stolen and turned to Grant’s ‘second sight’ to recover them…
The Missing Cheeses
The tale, as related in John Dixon’s Gairloch in North-West Ross-Shire (publ. 1886), is that the thief became afraid that he would be unmasked and so hit upon a plan to intercept the Great Bard on the road and bribe him into silence. This he achieved, paying him 15 shillings not to reveal his identity.
Grant then asked the cheese thief a series of questions to establish exactly where the cheeses were hidden — questions of the ‘oh yes, I knew that but where exactly?’ variety — and also found out one was missing.
Continuing on to Lochcarron, Grant announced that he could not say who took the cheeses but he had ‘seen’ where they could be found and that one would be missing. And so it proved. Amazing! Not only did this help cement his reputation, but he charged the rightful cheese-owner 25 shillings for his help, making a total of £2 for his troubles.
Track to Achgarve
Slaggan, much like Camustrolvaig the day before, was an abandoned settlement that had been linked to others by a track. Not one leading to Mellon Charles, obviously, but instead one that headed up the valley to Achgarve (An t-Achadh Garbh, ‘the rough field’). The question was, would it be as hard going as the track from Camustrolvaig?
Actually, it wasn’t much of a question; I already knew the state of the track was suitable for bikes and off-road vehicles. I thoroughly enjoyed my leisurely amble along it, distracting myself from intrusive thoughts of hotel-lessness by appreciating the views.
Loch an t-Slagain
The track passed the loch at arm’s length and then through a wood before continuing along another valley.
Achgarve & Laide
Loch na h-Innse Gairbhe
The track soon passed a smaller lochan — Loch na h-Innse Gairbhe (‘loch of the rough island’) — which did not appear to have an island in it, despite its name; I guess ‘non-existent’ is the roughest of island terrains.
Soon, I started to see houses ahead and, beyond them, Gruinard Bay.
At the last moment, the track swung away, out of the valley to meet the public road between Achgarve and Mellon Udrigle (Meallan Ùdraigil). With asphalt now beneath my feet, I followed the hill down into Achgarve, a tiny crofting and fishing hamlet about which there’s not much else to say.
Leaving for Laide
From Achgarve, I had about a mile and a half of unclassified road to take me to Laide, where it would meet the A832. I resolved to keep an eye out for any B&Bs that might have a sign showing vacancies.
As I ambled along the road, a car pulled up to offer me that lift back to Poolewe if I needed it — it was one of the Mellon Charles locals, who was now out for a drive and had recognised me. I thanked him profusely but declined and he sped off, leaving me to contemplate the far coastline of Gruinard Bay.
A short while later, I started to encounter houses again and knew that I had reached Laide (An Leathad, ‘the hillside’).
An Cois na Mara
As I ambled through Laide, I saw a sign pointing down a side street with the name and number of a B&B on it. This was An Cois na Mara (‘the seaside’), which had had no availability when I planned my trip but I figured I had nothing to lose by asking if that had changed. I phoned the number…
Alas, their availability had not changed; the proprietor — John — confirmed that they had no vacancies. I thanked him anyway and prepared to move on…
…And then, before I could hang up, he asked if I had any other numbers to try, an extremely helpful gesture on his part. I admitted that I didn’t and would be grateful for some but with the caveat that within walking distance was better. This naturally led to the explanation that I was walking and the how and why of my not having somewhere already.
‘Hang on a minute,’ he said. Vague susurrations of discussion sounded in the background. Then John piped up: ‘we do have a room for you, after all!’
It turned out that they had a room set up for guest use but which they were temporarily using for storage. Thus, as I walked the short distance down their road, John and his wife were busy shifting boxes (or whatever); he was fond of a spot of hiking himself and had taken pity on my plight. My gratitude knew no bounds. Especially when it worked out slightly cheaper than the hotel room I hadn’t got.
But there was more:
‘I’ll bet you haven’t eaten,’ he correctly observed, ‘because you expected to get dinner at the hotel.’ I concurred. ‘Well…’ he said, ‘everything’s frozen but we could do you beans on toast.’ And so they did.
This free extra meal, simple as it was, was nothing but a pure gesture of kindness and I was duly appreciative. My faith in human nature was in large measure restored.
All’s Well That Ends Well
With hunger staved off until breakfast, I retired to my room and frankly revelled in having one. I also made a note to recover my lost deposit from the Aultbea Hotel. They wouldn’t give it up voluntarily, I was sure, but I’d paid by credit card, which meant that it would be recoverable.
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,694½ miles