CCXI – Dundonnell to Ullapool

Hasteful MammalTHE seventh and final walk of my April 2019 trip was faintly momentous in that it marked the first time since Gravesend that I’d walked seven days in a row (I had taken a seven-day trip way back in Cornwall but had spent the sixth day as a rest day). My legs didn’t feel quite as fresh at the start of Day Seven as they had at the start of Day One but neither did they feel like they were made of lead. I was game…

Dundonnell

Dundonnell Hotel

My walk began the exact moment that reception opened in the Dundonnell Hotel; I wanted to be up and out immediately and was skipping breakfast to do it. This was no reflection on the hotel, which had been entirely adequate.

The Dundonnell was built as a coaching inn in 1821 and its numerous subsequent owners have enlarged it considerably, increasing its number of rooms eightfold. It had fed me, showered me and given me a bed for the night and I wasn’t unhappy with any of that; nonetheless, I felt the need to get going.

The thing that was driving my urgency — and by ‘driving’ I mean threatening to career wildly down the road in the style of Mr Toad — was uncertainty about part of my route. The night before, I’d been looking over the route on my map, as you do, and had suddenly realised just how fingerprinty the contour lines were looking at one point.

My route as planned, which had seemed entirely reasonable when planning it in the comfort of my living room, involved what now looked like a descent of discomforting steepness. This had prompted a number of questions that my brain had decided to dwell on in the middle of the night such as ‘will my knee give out halfway down?’ and ‘will its height terrify me?’

Avoiding Anxiety

Come morning, I had largely written them off as small hours anxieties (though that’s not normally something that afflicts me) and was feeling better about it in the cold light of day — I was sure my route would be fine — but I didn’t want to sit about and contemplate it any further. I find such concerns are often worse in the anticipation than reality, and so I set off immediately it was possible, rather than give them time to expand in the manner of the Dundonnell Hotel.

Old photo of Dundonnell Hotel
My concerns were currently this size.
Dundonnell Hotel
Waiting for breakfast would have turned them into this.
Auchtascailt

The first half mile was along the A832, which was quite deserted at that early hour. About ten minutes after setting off, I came to the farmstead of Auchtascailt (Achadh Dà Sgaillt, ‘field of two bare places’) and took the minor road that turned off there. This passed by the farm buildings and the turned hard right, running parallel to the A-road. A line of trees on my right obscured my view of the latter, while to my left were fields of sheep and lambs.

The lambs watched me with wide-eyed curiosity while their mothers eyed me with distrust. I bid them a hearty and reassuring good morning and they responded with ‘baa’. I took this to mean ‘go away’ and obliged them by immediately baa-ing.

No Ewe-Turns

One ewe that I couldn’t so easily oblige was a daft creature who’d somehow got out onto the road. Well, I say ‘road’; ‘farm track’ is more appropriate.

As I drew closer, she turned and ran but only about fifty metres. A moment later, we repeated that scenario. I sighed at this and resigned myself to playing this strange game until one of us could escape by going sideways. I figured that it would be her who did that but, as it turned out, it was me.

Dundonnell River

The track stopped running parallel to the A-road when it hit the obstacle of the Dundonnell River, the meanders of which meant that I was impeded by it whereas the A-road was not. The track turned left to follow the stream until it came to a footbridge, separated from the track by a gate. It was here that the ewe and I parted company, my ovine playmate running on up the track while I crossed the river.

The footbridge was unusual in that it was a suspension bridge rather than an arch and its deck wobbled alarmingly as I crossed.

Dundonnell suspension bridge
You can be across in two shakes.

On the far side of the river I encountered a man and two children, patiently waiting for me to get off the bridge so they could cross in the other direction. Or enjoy the wobbles. Or something. Something in Mr Patient Waiter’s expression suggested that he found mine mildly amusing and I could hardly blame him; I hadn’t been expecting the wobbliness and it probably showed. I admitted as much as I passed him and his faint, knowing smile became slightly less faint and more knowing.

Eilean Darach Estate

Also on the far side were a number of cottages on the Eilean Darach Estate. Eilean Darach (‘oak island’) was a Victorian hunting lodge built beside the river and I glimpsed it through the trees as I followed its estate track further upstream.

I’d done maybe another half mile when the track passed through a gate and the surface underfoot became hard asphalt. I was now back on the public road and standing at a crossroads of sorts. Behind me and to my right were gated estate tracks, while ahead and to my left, a single-track public road snaked away.

Badrallach & Aultnaharrie Road

The left-hand route led to the tiny hamlet of Badrallach, from which a footpath led to the remote and equally tiny hamlet of Scoraig, which is accessible only by boat or on foot. A track branching off that road also led to the even tinier Aultnaharrie (Allt na h-Airbhe, ‘boundary wall stream’), which used to consist of one lonely inn, which was originally an 18th century ferryman’s residence.

The Altnaharrie Inn was home to Scotland’s only two-Michelin-starred restaurant but closed in 2002 when its owner developed health issues. It was sold in 2003 and the ferry route — originally serving cattle drovers but mainly providing access to the inn since at least the 1840s — stopped running. Had it still been in operation, I might have chosen that direction and used the ferry to cross to Ullapool, but without it, turning left would just be a dead end. I went straight on.

Badrallach & Aultnaharrie Road
I’ve certainly made worse choices in life.
Glas Mheall Mòr

As I ambled along the winding lane, I was treated to some excellent views of Glas Mheall Mòr (‘big grey hill’), a 797 m mountain that forms a subsidiary peak of An Teallach (‘the forge’). Despite several days of warm weather, it was still sporting a sprinkle of snow.

Glas Mheall Mòr
Well, that or there’s a seagull the size of a small moon.
Dundonnel Bridge

The road passed by the Dundonnell House, a mansion house built in 1767 and now owned by lyricist Tim Rice (his estranged wife lives there). Just beyond that, the road crossed the Dundonnell River via a hump-backed bridge that also dates to the 18th century. I didn’t strictly need to cross the bridge, beyond which the road soon met the A832. I did so anyway…

Dundonnell Bridge
…If nothing else, to appreciate its lack of wobble.

My actual reasons for crossing the river were twofold. Firstly, I could get a better photo of the bridge from that side and secondly, it offered a better opportunity to sit down and pause. I wanted to take another look at the map and decide if I wished to chicken out of beginning a stretch with an uncertain descent at the end of it.

I sat, I looked, I decided. I did not go ‘cluck’.

The Kirk Road

Finding the Path

Nipping back across the bridge, I set about finding the way onwards. While the A-road could have taken me around to the head of Loch Broom via an enormous ‘V’, I had opted for an old ‘kirk road’ that would nip straight over the hill. The very start of the path, as shown on old maps, was no longer accessible but I’d read advice on how to pick up the rest of it.

Essentially, I had to start along another path, which ran by the river, and then leave it, veering leftwards up a brutally steep hillside until I intersected its course. This I did and was 80% sure, when I found it, that it was a path and not a stream. It was wet and rocky but also really muddy and, in my experience, actual streams are never as muddy as a path.

The thing that I believed was probably the path continued to climb obliquely up the valley wall at a rate sufficiently steep that I was gasping when I reached the top of it. I stood there, legs and lungs both equally afire and regarded an object that confirmed I’d found the path.

A gate
The gate was barred; my onward route was not.
Hut Circles

Once through the gate, I was initially traversing an open, grassy hillside, the slope of which had levelled off somewhat. Somewhere up there I knew were ancient hut circles but whether they were the rough rings of rocks I soon passed, I don’t know.

If so, they had an awesome view of An Teallach.
Allt an Tiobairtein

The path alternated between muddy and rocky before settling once more on the combination of both. The map told me that it would climb to cross a stream above a waterfall and so it did. The stream in question was called the Allt an Tiobairtein (‘stream of the little well’) and it was kind enough to confirm my theory about the difference between streams and paths:

Allt an Tiobairtein
You’ll notice the absence of mud.

Actually, to be fair, the path wasn’t all that muddy. I mean, there were certainly patches here and there where it made more sense to go around but given that it headed out over open moor, that was only to be expected.

Meall a’ Chàirn & Loch an Tiompain

The path now stretched out ahead of me, receding into the omnipresent haze, a visual guide to what I’d be doing for the next couple of hours…

The Kirk Road
I’d be boldly going on the Kirk Road.

I stomped, squelched and occasionally stumbled my way along the kirk road for about two miles until it rounded the flank of a hill called Meall a’ Chàirn (‘cairn hill’). I hadn’t seen any cairns yet but I did see a body of water — Loch an Tiompain — which meant I was halfway across the hills. It seemed like a good spot to pause and rest. In fact, taking a leisurely break felt compulsory.

Loch an Tiompain
Do you see any rushes? No? So, rushing would be inappropriate.

Eventually, I felt the need to get back up and continue.

Loch an Fhìona & Lochan Dubh

The path became muddier again and in places was indistinct but I also started to see cairns along the way to help keep me on track. Another small loch — Loch an Fhìona (‘loch of the wine’) lay off to my left though not close enough to ascertain its vintage. The path pulled away from that and veered right, crossing a small stream beside an equally small pond — Lochan Dubh (‘black tarn’) — which seemed to exist with glorious disregard to an old, tumbledown stone dam that was playing no part in creating it.

Lochan Dubh
It’s here ’cause it’s here and stonework be damned!

Upon reaching Lochan Dubh, I’d almost run out of hilltop and I knew the descent to Inverbroom — some 380 m below me — had to start soon. In fact. it began, as the climb up had ended, with a gate.

Accounts I had read of people losing the path suggested that it might be notional at this point but as I stood there, the gate before me, it seemed pretty clear where the path was.

Another gate
It was going along, not straight down the side, so that got a thumbs up from me.
The Descent

As it turned out, the path down was clear all the way. It was a farm track and it ran exactly where my map said it would. For most of the way it was steep but not shocking and it zig-zagged its way in this fashion down to another gate at about 150 m.

Strath More
Not wanting to over-burden my knee, I paused for a rest partway down. I was rewarded for this caution by a constant roar of mockery (or that might have been the traffic on the A835 below).

Beyond this third gate, the farm track ran in two directions. To the right it climbed back up the hill in order to cross a stream and drop down again; this appeared to be the more-travelled route by farm vehicles but was not the old Kirk Road. That headed downwards, moderately at first but then becoming very steep indeed.

Nursing My Knee

Fear of heights was not the problem — a screen of trees below the path dealt with that — but managing to stay upright was quite a challenge. It was steep, dusty and scattered with loose stones, a combination that threatened to take my feet out from beneath me.

I would not, it is true, have fallen down the hillside but I could have had an uncontrolled sit-down. My biggest threat, though, was my hill-hating knee and I nursed it carefully, creeping down at a pace that even a snail would have sneered at.

I made it down safe and unscathed though, even if the continents had had time to move about.

Inverbroom

Croftown

The Kirk Road emerged onto the actual road right next to a handful of cottages, which rejoiced in the name of Croftown. From them, the old Kirk Road continued along the valley floor to the churchyard at Clachan about half a mile away. I, however, was headed across the valley instead.

Inverbroom Crossroads

The road initially conveyed me to a crossroads, where a left turn went to Clachan, Letters and Blarnalearoch, where it would be a dead end. A right turn went only to Inverbroom Lodge (another Victorian shooting lodge). As had been the case that morning, my route would send me straight on.

C1055 to Inverbroom Bridge
And again, I was comfortable with that.
Inverbroom Bridge

I strolled along the leafy avenue at a leisurely pace, aware that before it reached the A835 it would have to cross the River Broom. Inverbroom Bridge was, I had read, a ‘graceful’ and ‘elegant’ iron bridge built, built around 1860, which sounded lovely.

Inverbroom Bridge
But this wasn’t it.

The current Inverbroom Bridge (built in 1994) is by no means horrible, especially when compared with many other modern, concrete bridges. It even has decorative abutments that deliberately evoke a Rennie Mackintosh style. Granted, I wouldn’t go out of my way just to see it again but I’m not actually convinced its predecessor was an aesthetic triumph, either. They’re both ‘okay’ designs to me.

Water Shortage

Crossing the bridge put me onto the A835, which was busier than I’d have liked. Something else I’d have liked was some more water, as I’d just finished what I’d been carrying and the day was far warmer than expected. Alas, ‘more water’ was exactly what I didn’t have and the only place I was likely to get some was in Ullapool, some seven miles down that A-road. That being so, I set off…

I was halfway through the day’s walk at this point.

Inverlael

Inverlael Old Bridge

Between my thirst and the intermittent traffic, I can’t say that the A835 half of this walk was the most fun I’ve ever had walking but it wasn’t terrible either. To begin with, it ran alongside the River Broom but, before long, the river meandered one way and the road another. The A-road then came to the River Lael, which also flows into Loch Broom, and crossed it on another modern bridge.

Unlike Inverbroom, however, the old bridge was still in situ, the new one standing beside it. Inverlael Old Bridge was built around 1790.

Inverlael Old Bridge
It no longer carries the highway but it’s still the higher bridge.
Inverlael Farm

I next passed Inverlael Farm, which is just a farm like its name says. But beneath one of its fields lie the remains of Inverlael township, once comprising 63 buildings but now abandoned and vanished. Not that I saw any hint of them — that’s what ‘vanished’ means.

Loch Broom
What I did see was Loch Broom (Loch Bhraoin), which is what the river had turned into while my back was turned.

Leckmelm

Leckmelm Wood

The road ran alongside the loch shore, passing through the hamlets of Ardcharnish (Àird Cheatharnaich, ‘high cliff’) and Leckmelm (Leac Mailm). The former takes its name from an inland cliff which can be seen behind it from a vantage point on the loch but not, ironically, from the hamlet itself. The latter’s name is of uncertain meaning — leac means ‘slab’ — and might be a reference to someone’s gravestone. Regardless of why it’s called what it is, it’s just a handful of houses surrounded by Leckmelm Wood; which added some pleasant shade to an increasingly sun-baked walk.

Battle of Leckmelm

Leckmelm, or somewhere nearby it, may not have had much to offer me but in 1586 it offered death and despair to Clan Gunn, who lost a battle there.

The Battle of Leckmelm was fought largely for revenge over a recent Gunn victory elsewhere but it saw Clan Gunn facing Clan Sutherland, the Mackays of Aberach and the MacLeods of Assynt. Realising they were outmatched, they were actually trying to escape to the Isles but were caught at Leckmelm and most of them were slain.

Alexander Pirie

Leckmelm saw despair again, though no actual deaths — in the 1870s, when the estate was bought by Aberdeen paper manufacturer Alexander Pirie. Despite the Highland Clearances having come to an end at least a decade earlier amid widespread condemnation, he was not at all reluctant to renew them with vigour, using the same laws to oust his tenants and tear down their cottages after first banning them from keeping livestock on any part of his land.

In addition to enjoying the terrorising of his tenants, Pirie appears to have had a liking for horticulture, for he laid out an arboretum and walled garden.

Leckmelm Gardens

In 1906, the gardens were acquired by a woman named Edith Fraser, who planted more shrubs and maintained a staff of 12 gardeners but eventually she sold them on and in the 1940s, management of them ceased. They remained untended until 1984, when new owners decided to restore them and today they are open to the public.

I had every intention of going in and taking an extended rest there but, on the day, I decided that dehydration was more pressing and that I needed to keep moving and get to Ullapool and drink something.

Ullapool

Approaching Ullapool

A long, straight bit of road followed, which was easy but dull, and this was followed by a windier bit with blind bends and a low rocky cliff on the inland side, which was more exciting in a ‘potential road death’ sort of way.

On another day, I’d have been far more appreciative, no doubt, but, as it was, I just wanted a cold drink. Unfortunately, Ullapool didn’t seem to be getting any closer…

Approaching Ullapool
…Except when it suddenly did.
Ullapool War Memorial

It was with a great sense of relief that I staggered thirstily into Ullapool, where the village did its best to remind to have some perspective about the scale of my suffering.

Ullapool War Memorial
Point taken, Ullapool.

Fortunately, slight dehydration was easier to fix than, say, being raked with machine gun fire or gassed with chlorine. I remedied it by purchasing a couple of cold drinks and some snacks from the first shop I saw and sitting to consume them in a small park on the loch shore.

Cold Drinks & Confusion

A small boy watched me pass with wide eyes — ‘Hello Man!’ he called generically to me — before turning to his mother with an expression of total perplexion.

‘Why does he have two?’ he asked, pointing at my drinks.

Loch Broom
I wasn’t sure if two were enough; I felt like I could down Loch Broom.

I drank the two drinks slowly, taking small sips, and generally took the time to rest and recover. I could probably have done so in more comfort had I gone slightly further and found my hotel but, actually, sitting and looking at the loch suited me fine.

Exploring Ullapool

Eventually, when I felt more human, I ventured properly into the village, aware that I was not only ending this walk but seven consecutive days.

Ullapool Shore Street
Ullapool wasn’t impressed; it gets that a lot.

I ambled about the village for a bit, making sure I knew where my hotel was and where I would catch the bus the next morning. I also found a cash machine, which had been becoming a pressing issue — while London works almost entirely on contactless payment these days, the same is not always true for Highland village shops.

After a suitable stint of pointless pottering, I started to feel that it was time to check in, get washed and changed and find dinner.

Fowler Memorial Clock
This clock may have given me a hint.
Fowler Memorial Clock

Allegedly the most photographed clock in the Highlands, the Fowler Memorial Clock is essentially another war memorial.

Sir John Fowler of Braemore (1817-1898) was an English engineer who worked on the Metropolitan Railway (today, the Tube’s Metropolitan line) and the Forth Bridge, amongst other projects. He purchased an estate at Braemore in 1857.

In 1899, the year after his death, the clock was erected as a memorial to him and subsequent plaques were added to commemorate his sons and grandsons killed in the Great War. The clock was moved from the middle of the road to the roadside in the 1960s (it was impeding traffic) and was electrified in 1995 — until then it was still wound up by hand!

Restorative Refreshments

Clockwork and electricity may sustain memorial clocks but a Helpful Mammal requires actual food. Having washed and changed and generally refreshed myself, I ventured into the hotel restaurant to consume exactly that. I felt much better for it.

Seagull Pirates

As a general rule, I’m accustomed to eating much later than I had done, so I now had unexpected free time in actual daylight after dinner. I chose to spend some of it sitting by Ullapool’s harbour, where I found amusement in one thing and interest in another.

The source of my amusement was a pair of seagulls who appeared to have claimed the roof of a small fishing boat as their own. They were quite noisy and it seemed to me that they should be having this argument:

SEAGULL 1: ‘So how do you make this thing go, then?’
SEAGULL 2: ‘How the hell, should I know? All I know is these things somehow make fish.’
SEAGULL 1: What do you mean you don’t know? But you said… Wait, is there a manual?’

The Salvage Game

The thing of interest was a fishing boat that came in with a small pleasure boat lashed to one side, low in the water, and a rowing boat trailing from the other. Operating the fishing boat was just one man who had to solve his own special version of the fox, chicken & grain puzzle in that he needed to moor his fishing boat in one place and the pleasure boat in another without leaving either uncontrolled in the harbour. He solved it pretty smartly and I watched the proceedings with interest, asking him what was occurring after he’d finished.

The pleasure boat had foundered in the middle of the lock, he explained, and he’d just salvaged it. It was, in fact, half full of water, which had been both a blessing (it more-or-less stayed where it was put even unmoored) and a problem (it handled like a pig).

I enquired if salvaging boats was unusual activity for a fisherman, which seemed to darkly amuse him. Apparently it happens a lot; tourists lose boats on the loch all the time.

It’s Me, Apparently

Later, in the hotel bar, I enjoyed a stilted conversation with a holidaying couple whose broken English was only marginally better than my broken German (but in combination it just about worked). After they’d gone, I sat quietly for a bit and was just about to leave myself, when an extremely drunk-sounding Scotsman lurched over to point at me, shouting, ‘it’s you!’

I’d never seen him before.

‘It’s you!’ he repeated.

It was, he was right. It was most definitely me. That didn’t help much with context.

‘You were walking on the road,’ he explained. ‘I saw you, twice. Going both ways. Me, not you. I was go… That’s a lot of walking! Amazing! What’s in that glass?’

It was Lagavulin.

‘Double Lagavulin for this one!’ he told the barman. ‘He was walking down the road. And then he was still walking! Amazing! Cheers!’

And with a huge thumbs up, he lurched off. I drank my new drink; it seemed rude not to. And then I headed off to bed.

Ullapool Harbour
Ullapool Harbour
The following morning the seagulls’ boat was nowhere to be seen. I reckon they finally got it figured out. I just hope they fared better than the tourists.

Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,723 miles

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