BECAUSE of a small inconvenience on Day 5 of my April 2019 trip — i.e. my hotel having ceased to exist — Day 6 actually began in a more leisurely manner than it might otherwise have done. I awoke in a pleasant B&B that was right at the start of the day’s walk (and not three miles away, as the hotel would have been) and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast and a lengthy chat with some other guests who were happy to enthuse about walking.
In particular, they enthused about a postman’s path north of Ullapool, which sounded great, although I’ve since done some research and am not so sure that it and my inconstant head for heights are compatible.
Fortunately, no such issue would cloud this day’s walking. I planned to be less of a mountain goat and more of a simple plodding donkey…
I had taken maybe two steps outside the B&B and was still within its neat little garden when I looked out into the bay and saw Gruinard Island (Eilean Ghruinneard).
Between 1942 and 1900 that would have been a very bad place indeed to be a goat or donkey, or indeed any other ungulate herbivore. The reason why is given away by its other unofficial name — Anthrax Island.
Sadly for the 80 sheep that were shipped onto the island, a bit of frenzied moshing was not on the cards. They may have heard some heavy percussion but that was just incidental noise from the bioweapons exploding all around them. The aerosol of weaponised anthrax spores that then enveloped them killed most of the sheep within days.
Given that this occurred in 1942, you can probably deduce why the UK felt it might be in need of terrifying bioweapons. This particular horror was a strain of the Bacillus anthracis bacterium named after Roy Vollum, the Oxford professor of bacteriology who had provided it.
The Vollum 14578 strain was particularly virulent and, as the boffins from Porton Down — Britain’s secretive biological and chemical weapons laboratory —s urveyed the terrible toll it had taken on the sheep, they realised that what they had was both highly effective and at the same time essentially unusable.
It could be dropped on enemy cities, putting the ‘germ’ into ‘Germans’ in the most horrible manner but the cities would then remain contaminated for decades. A city so bombed would be ‘no-go’ for Allies and Axis alike. Vollum 14578 was something of a ‘scorched earth’ weapon…
Just how persistent it was became horribly apparent in the subsequent weeks, when the boffins tried and failed to decontaminate Gruinard Island.
Like many interesting pathogens that will not just ruin your day but miserably end it, B anthracis forms highly durable spores. Certainly more durable than 1940s decontamination efforts could cope with. This was bad news for not only the sheep but anyone landing on Gruinard, and especially for a Mrs Maitland, who owned it.
It was pretty clear that HM Government couldn’t actually give back to her what was now an island death trap, so they bought it for £500 with the proviso that when it was finally safe, it would be sold back to Mrs Maitland or her heirs. It took them 48 years.
In the end, Gruinard Island — pronounced ‘grinyard’ — was sprayed all over with a mixture of formaldehyde and seawater and was finally declared safe in 1990. It was then sold back to the trustees of the estate, Mrs Maitland’s niece having succeeded her and then died in the meantime. As promised, the purchase price was £500.
The island remains uninhabited; no one had lived there for 20 years even before it was infected with deadly disease, let alone now when it’s ‘probably safe’ (but why take the chance?)
I certainly had no plans to take that chance but, since Gruinard is an island, I didn’t need to…
Sand, First Coast & Second Coast
My morning would be spent ambling round the edge of Gruinard Bay looking at the island but not touching it. This meant walking along the thankfully quiet A832 as it undulated up and down hills along the shoreline, passing through the hamlets of Sand and the oddly-named First Coast and Second Coast.
Each of these hamlets is tiny, though early edition OS maps show more buildings than there are now. In some cases, the broken shells of abandoned structures have lingered almost as stubbornly as anthrax.
From Second Coast, the A-road climbed a little more earnestly, winding its way between the rocky crags of Creag Mhòr (‘big crag’) and the lumpen hill of Meall Buidhe (‘yellow rounded hill’). It reached a summit at around 100 m, where a couple of parking spaces serviced a viewpoint looking down upon the mouth of the Little Gruinard River.
The descent from Creag Mhòr to the valley floor was one of knee-testing steepness (for me, anyway), so I paused at the bottom to cajole my knee into showing some forgiveness. I also took the opportunity to smother myself in sunscreen as the Great Glowing Orb of Incineration kept breaking through the haze.
My place of pausing was Gruinard Beach, a delightful swathe of sand occupying part of Gruinard Bay. I wasn’t alone in pausing there, either; its little car park was almost full to capacity.
And with that thought, I hurried on my way, lest I be the next victim.
Historic Boundary Weirdness
I let the road carry me along to a bridge over the Gruinard River and, in crossing that, I experienced some historic boundary weirdness. Today, the area in which I was walking is the Highland council area but in the past it was the county of Ross & Cromarty. Before that, there were two counties — Ross-shire and Cromartyshire — and the latter had numerous enclaves in the former.
By crossing the Gruinard I had entered one such place and would be in Cromartyshire for maybe a mile. After that, I would be back in Ross-shire but not for long. I would basically be passing in and out of bits of Cromarty for the rest of the day as though someone had stood on high and just splattered it like wet paint over the map.
Goodbye to Gruinard
My first taste of Cromarty was essentially a wooded valley but I emerged from that (and from Cromarty) to get one last good view of Anthrax Island before the road climbed up to a low pass. The beach there was boulders and stones, which was the only rock that Gruinard Bay had to offer; there would be no Anthrax, no heavy metal. Glam, prog, punk and goth were also not its thing.
Mungasdale & Druim nam Fuath
The A-road now headed inland, passing the farmstead of Mungasdale and ascending the valley of a stream of the same name. It was a long and leisurely climb, snaking slowly to the top.
Old Road & Primrose
As I plodded my way up the incline, I became aware of two things. One was that I could see occasional snatches of tarmac buried in the gorse beside the road — the evidence of a bit of modern curve-easing. The other was quite a lot of yellow, thanks to some flowers that, though wild, were also quite restrained.
Druim nam Fuath
The road reached its summit at 170 m and then did that thing where, due to scale, it looks like a shallow curve on the map but in reality proves to be a hard corner. The haze had intensified during the ascent and I found myself looking at grey, featureless shapes that reason insisted were mountains.
Little Loch Broom
A Sweeping Vista
Around the corner, the road broke away from those trees and curved about to lead up Little Loch Broom (An Loch Beag, ‘the little loch’), while descending the coastal slope to sea level.
I stood upon a small snatch of older road alignment purely because it was there and peered up the loch, trying to bring a café or tea shop into existence through force of will alone.
The descent to sea level was spread over a couple of miles so, though it was protracted, it wasn’t nearly as knee-testing as the one into Little Gruinard had been. At the bottom, I passed by the village of Badcaul (Bada Call), into which I never really called so I couldn’t say if it was bad (I jest; its name means ‘hazel clump’).
Badcaul was mostly strung out along a side road along the lower stretch of the loch and I had no plans to venture to that road’s dead end and back. A more intrepid walker might have blazed a trail round the coast at Stattic Point but not me; I had let the A-road lead me into corner-cutting and I was fine with that. There’d be more of that before the trip was out.
I gazed towards Scoraig (Sgoraig from ON for ‘rift bay’) on the opposite shore, a village reachable only by footpath or boat. For months, I’d figured I’d take a route that went out to it but, now that I was in the vicinity, I intended to simply see it from across the loch.
I did try to make out the Scoraig footpath, which runs for five miles from the end of a road, rounding the lower flanks of Beinn Ghoblach (‘horned mountain’).
Badbea & Camusnagaul
Having dropped to almost sea level, the road ran past the couple of houses that made up the hamlet of Badbea (Bad Beithe, ‘birch clump’) and continued on towards the slightly larger settlement of Camusnagaul (Camas nan Gall, ‘strangers’ bay’). A sign on the approach to the latter led me to believe that my willpower was magnificent for a café would await me. Alas, I never found it. What I did find, on my way into the village, was a waterfall — Ardessie Falls:
If I couldn’t consume tea yet, I could swallow my disappointment for the end of the day’s walk was already drawing near. I only had a couple more miles to go; my destination was Dundonnell, which lay just beyond the head of the loch.
The penultimate mile slipped by without warning and suddenly I was standing by Dundonnell’s war memorial, which perches on a rocky ledge just above the A-road. The memorial is slightly unusual in that while it has 14 names listed for WW1, it has just one for WW2. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a village war memorial list a solitary name before.
I dropped back down onto the A832 and completed the final mile to Dundonnell (Dùn Dhòmhnaill, ‘Donald’s fort’). Specifically, I ended my walk at the Dundonnell Hotel, a 32-room hotel that originally started out with just four when it was built as a coaching inn c. 1820.
There, I was able to get that cup of tea and enjoy a nice sit down.
The day had been neither particularly strenuous nor exciting but that’s exactly how I wanted it. It was, if you like, an ambulatory rest day, and that’s what was needed on day 6 of 7. The next day (and last day) of the trip would be a more demanding, but that could wait until tomorrow…
This time: 14½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,709 miles