CCXIV – Lochinver to Drumbeg

Hasteful MammalTHE forecast for the third day of my September 2019 trip was once again for intermittent showers. The skies when I awoke were suitably grey, as seen through my hotel window but that was looking westwards. Behind me there was blue and a promising ray of sunshine.

Lochinver

Inver Lodge Hotel
Loch Inver from Inver Lodge Hotel
Promises are only meaningful if they are kept, though.

The weather seemed to be making good on its promise during breakfast, as grey gave way to blue to such an extent that I knew I’d have to break out the sunscreen, which I had been optimistically lugging through the previous days’ rain. Without it, the merest hint of solar exposure would have me bursting into flames like a vampire. Or so it feels.

My breakfast (salmon) further rubbed the point home by having been smoked. I took its warning well and made a mental note to panic if I were ambushed by scrambled eggs along the way.

Culag Hotel

Fuelled with food and smeared in sunscreen, I checked out of the hotel and slowly and carefully made the knee-torturing descent back into Lochinver below. There, at the harbourside, I was warily watched by Lochinver’s other hotel.

Culag Hotel
Choose my rival, would you? I’ve got your number, mammal…

The scrutiny of the Culag Hotel was at least thematically appropriate as it started out as a herring smokehouse in 1795, owned by Sir Joseph Bacon, whose name is no less apt.

Later, it would be sold to Macdonald of Skye and then to the future Duke of Sutherland. The latter had it extensively extended and remodelled as a hunting and fishing lodge in the 1870s and it became a hotel in 1890.

The Otter Spotter

As I stood, looking at the hotel, I became aware of a man stood beside me, studiously scrutinising the rock shore. He turned his head to look at me and asked:

‘Are you watching the otters?’

I was not.

I looked around, trying to spot the otters that I was apparently missing. It turned out I’d missed them, past tense. They had, the Otter Spotter told me, been there just a couple of minutes before, dragging their catch onto the rocks. They were, however, on the rocks no longer.

‘I’ll shout if I spot them again,’ he offered but I felt the need to press on.

Main Street

Keeping an eye out for any ottery action (I saw none), I ambled my way along Lochinver’s Main Street, which was also the end of the A837. This made it a two-way road with proper pedestrian pavements, not that I saw much in the way of traffic to avoid.

War Memorial

The road curved around, past white-painted cottages, to the mouth of the River Inver (from the Gaelic inbhir meaning ‘river mouth’, making for a somewhat redundant name). Beside its banks stood Lochinver’s war memorial, erected in 1921 to commemorate local highlanders who lost their lives in the Great War (WW2 names were added later).

Lochinver war memorial
They were ‘kilt in action’, you might say.

The names of the fallen were boldly legible, which was not the case as recently as the start of 2018, when weathering and moss had somewhat impaired the inscriptions. Repair and conservation works were carried out that summer, supported by the Centenary Memorial Restoration Fund (a funding scheme of Historic Environment Scotland).

A little further on from the war memorial, I found Lochinver’s few shops. Of particular interest to me was a branch of Spar, where I was able to stock up on fluids and snacks.

Inver Bridge

Merrily munching chocolate that I absolutely hadn’t needed, I continued up the road to Inver Bridge (constructed in 1821) and the turn-off for Baddidarach (Am Badaidh Darach , ‘the oak spinney’).

Inver Bridge
At this point, my A-road journey was abruptly abridged.

Across the bridge, an unclassified road led past a church and on towards the village of Baddidarach, which was once separate but these days is contiguous with Lochinver.

For the first three quarters of a mile, it was separated by houses from the shoreline of Loch Inver but then briefly touched it before passing over a cattle grid and veering inland, narrowing as it went. It wound its way up Glendarach (‘oak valley’) towards a dead end but I left it partway along via a footpath that led towards Achmelvich. For once, on this trip, I would actually be following a footpath, not a road.

Achmelvich Footpath

The Path Begins
Achmelvich Footpath
Whoa now, slow down. Is this wise?

Though muddy in places, the path was generally firm and clear. It may not be a road now but the 2nd edition Ordnance Survey map for the area (published 1907) shows it as no different to the road to Baddidarach.

Interestingly, in the 1st edition map (published 1878), the track doesn’t exist though a different one runs nearby, which had vanished by the update.

Loch an Tuim

Following its 1907 route, the path skirted south of a tarn named Loch an Tuim (‘loch of the hillock’), which appeared to have changed shape since the early OS editions.

Loch Dubh & Ardroe

It then picked its way across a craggy landscape of open moorland, passing other small lochans until it climbed an outcrop south of Loch Dubh (‘black loch’, a common name for peat-bottomed lochs).

Below, in a shallow valley, was the tiny hamlet of Ardroe (Àird Rodha, ‘shore promontory’), to which the path descended.

Ardroe comprised a mere handful of houses, having lost a couple since the OS 1st edition in 1878. In Ardroe, the path joined a hardened track capable of taking vehicles and this sloped gently down towards Loch Dubh.

Loch Dubh
No one had told the loch it’s supposed to be black.

The track led up to a bridge over Loch Dubh’s outflow, which in early OS days had been both a footbridge and also the end of the road. In 2019, it kept going, passing through a gate on the way.

A small dog appeared from nowhere behind me and barked at me through the gate as if to make sure that I was really going, which I was. Good job, Small Dog!

Uidh a’ Mhaoraich

Continuing along the alignment of a footpath that had started showing up on OS maps by 1930, the track veered left at the last moment and chose not to connect to a footbridge of the same vintage. Instead, it crossed the Uidh a’ Mhaoraich (‘stream-between-lochs of the shellfish’) on a newer wood-and-metal affair capable of carrying vehicles, which was situated slightly downstream.

Old bridge over the Uidh a’ Mhaoraich
Its predecessor was struggling even to carry itself.

Once safely across, it was short walk up the tree-lined track to connect with a public road, specifically that connecting Achmelvich to the B869, which had itself branched off the A837 about a third of mile after Inver Bridge.

A Choice of Routes

I had a choice here — turn left to Achmelvich and take another footpath, that would connect with the B-road 2 miles from where I was now or turn right and take the road route, adding an extra mile.

To help me decide, I looked up at the sky and received a faceful of water as a hint; the first of the intermittent showers had arrived. A glance at my rapidly dampening map added further inducements to turn right in the form of a viewpoint (which might or might not be pointless in the rain) and a particularly winding section, that I thought might be fun.

Pulling my hood up, I turned right…

B869 Coast Road

Achadhantuir & Rhicarn

Just under a mile later I reached the B-road at a place called Achadhantuir and by ‘a place’ I mean ‘an isolated house’. Its name was the Gaelic (achadh an tùir) for ‘field of the tower’, not that I noticed any towers.

With a shrug, I turned left and plodded into and past rain-drenched Rhicarn (Ruigh a’ Chàirn, ‘slope of the cairn’), a relative sprawling metropolis with maybe five houses.

Old Road Alignment

Beyond Rhicarn, the single-track road began to climb quite steeply and I was sufficiently preoccupied with that as to fail to notice the rain easing off to the point of negligibility.

old and new road alignments
It wasn’t so much the steepness that grabbed my attention but this — the unmistakeable signs of old road alignments trying to tempt me astray.

The old alignments largely succeeded in their temptation. They were where the road had run going right back to the OS 1st edition before modern improvements cut across its S-shaped curves like the central bar of a dollar sign.

The Viewpoint

The final part of the old alignment had actual access from the new one, having become a small layby — this was the viewpoint indicated on my map. It was also, I decided, a good place to sit down and rest.

A collapsed and overgrown bench
But maybe not on this bench.

The viewpoint offered spectacular views of several striking mountains, including Canisp (Cansp), Suilven (Sùilebheinn) and Cùl Mòr, beautifully framed by the valley up which the road had just climbed.

Viewpoint with none of the mountains visible
Yeah, right.

Having been denied the epic mountain photo that was one of the reasons for choosing the road route, I sat and contemplated the whims of fickle fate. I also found myself looking upon the two diverging road alignments, which at this point had chosen opposite sides of the valley to ascend (the modern road is on the left in the photo, while the disused old road, which I’d just walked up, is on the right).

The Winding Road

With the aid of a bit of rock-blasting, 1970s road-straighteners had diligently and successfully excised a couple of sharp bends from the route up but I could see from my map that, a short distance further on, the terrain had thwarted any further efforts of that sort…

A winding road of zig-zag bends
Straighten this, I double dare you!

I quite like it when single track mountain roads go all continental, with hairpin turns and curves clinging tightly to hillsides supported on built-up embankments with crash barriers between traffic and a plunge. I don’t know why, perhaps because it doesn’t happen very often here.

Cnoc a’ Bhainne

In this case, after a passage that had been blasted through a crag, the road turned hard right. The requisite crash barrier was in place as it then turned left and then right again, rounding a blind corner of Cnoc a’ Bhainne (‘hill of the milk’ where ‘milk’ is metaphorical for white water) on an alignment supported by a stone-built bank.

Having turned right, it entered a larger loop, with smaller sub-undulations, that also involved a steep descent. The bottom of this was the elbow of the curve, onto which connected the gravelly drive of a distant white-painted cottage. Close by sat a couple of fellow pedestrians.

Two sheep sat by the roadside
Twice the legs mean four times as tired, so we’re just having a rest.
Loch an Ordain

Coming back out of the bend, the road used a low causeway to cross a boggy valley bottom from which small streams fed Loch an Ordain (‘loch of the small hillock’). The hillock in question, simply named An t-Ordan (‘the small hillock’), can be seen in the photo before last, sandwiched between the climbing road and the loch.

Having done so, the road climbed steeply to 63 m and then dropped slowly towards the end of Loch an Ordain, where I paused to look back up it. As I did so, I watched the hills beyond it disappear; the heavy rain that had earlier hidden the mountains was relentlessly chasing me down.

Loch an Ordain
Any moment now, I’m going to be wetter than that loch.
Leim a’ Phlaing

The deluge struck as I followed the road alongside the loch’s outfall, a stream named Leim a’ Phlaing (‘leap of the plack’).

A plack was a coin worth four Scottish pennies, much like an English groat except that the Scots devalued their coinage even more enthusiastically than the English, so it was generally worth less. By the time of the Act of Union in 1707 it took twelve pounds Scots to equal one pound Sterling (they originally started out at parity).

Loch na h-Inghinn

With strong winds and horizontal rain somewhat dampening the whole experience (literally), I plodded and splashed my way beside the stream, crossing it when it took a left turn under the road. The latter then conveyed me between Cnoc Mòr (‘big hill’) and Loch na h-Inghinn (‘maiden’s loch’), which would probably have absolutely lovely in conditions other than those I was ‘enjoying’.

The road passed a couple of houses at the far end of the loch and then climbed over one last craggy hill before dropping down onto a flat coastal plain, on which sat the village of Clachtoll.

Clachtoll

Entering Clachtoll was wonderful. Not so much for anything the village had to offer me but because I was now in the lee of the hill I’d just crossed.

Clachtoll (Clach Toll) was a sizeable village — compared to some of the Highlands’ tiny hamlets anyway — made to seem larger by being spread out. It is home to a popular campsite, which was well situated to take advantage of a stunning white sand beach and waters that can appear a surprisingly tropical turquoise when a howling rainstorm isn’t in full swing.

In the past, it used to take advantage of its waters in a different way, as evidenced by an old salmon bothy and ice house, ghosts of a lost fishing industry.

Sticking with a coastal theme, the village’s name means ‘hole rock’ and refers to the nearby remains of a natural arch. Meanwhile, an ancient broch overlooks the neighbouring Bay of Stoer.

Stoer

Stoer (An Stòr, ‘the tooth’) was the next village, sitting on a low hill overlooking Clachtoll. It was just high enough that entering it would expose me to the horizontal rain again.

Approaching Stoer
But maybe it will stop before I get up there?

It didn’t stop. Stoer did its best to distract me, though, with the ruins of its church.

Stoer Church Ruins

Built in 1828, this was one of 32 ‘Parliamentary Churches’ designed by Thomas Telford.

Disused since the 1970s, it was bought by an Edinburgh-based architect, Guy Morgan, in 2013 with the intention of turning it into a home. This immediately became a contentious issue with both local supporters (who saw it as a way to prevent its further deterioration) and detractors (who mostly objected to the effect on its cemetery). The detractors won out, with planning permission being refused and their case can only have been helped by the fact that the building was listed (as Category C) in 1971.

That was not the end of things, however. In 2017, the building was de-listed and Mr Morgan submitted a new request for planning permission. This was also refused but Mr Morgan appealed and the Scottish Government overturned the refusal, granting him permission for the conversion in October 2018.

Stoer church ruins
Mr Morgan’s invisible roof is greatly admired by other architects.
Stoer House

The associated manse, built for the church’s minister to live in, is now called Stoer House. It is in a far better state of repair and I trudged soggily past it on my way through Stoer.

Stoer Peninsula

About a mile beyond the village, I came to the turn off that led left onto the Stoer Peninsula. In addition to several hamlets, the peninsula was home to a lighthouse on Stoer Head (Rubha Stoer), which was built by David and Thomas Stevenson in 1870.

Also, at its tip (the Point of Stoer) was a 60 m high sea stack — the Old Man of Stoer. Together, these were enough inducement that I’d mentally marked the peninsula for inclusion if time and conditions permitted. So, did they?

Well, I had time; I’d been making good progress. The conditions, however, sucked. There are paths over the peninsula, so it wouldn’t be wild trailblazing, but they weren’t actually marked on my map. The horizontal rain was already sapping much of the joy from the walk and, in its more intense moments, was reducing visibility to very little indeed. If I squelched my way out to Stoer Point only to see nothing but grey, I’d be unhappy.

Mentally, I weighed up my options. Water is heavy (1 kg per litre) and it quickly tipped the scales in favour of not being too fussed about Stoer.

Clashnessie

Thus, instead of turning left and following the side-road to Balchladich (Baile a’ Chladaich, ‘beach town’), I stayed on the B-road to tiny Rienachait (Ruighean ‘a Chait, ‘shieling of the cat’), followed by a rain-blasted road-slog to Clashnessie (Clais an Easaidh, ‘waterfall gorge’).

The rain faltered and stopped as I entered Clashnessie, its primary purpose of ensuring that I missed out the Stoer Peninsula having been successfully achieved. Nonetheless thankful for its cessation, I descended towards a sandy beach upon which white waves were crashing with unseemly vigour.

Entering Clashnessie
It’s nice to be greeted with enthusiastic waving.

The waterfall that gives Clashnessie its name was about half a mile upstream and wasn’t visible from the village but the foaming sea more than made up for that; the stream, though small, was in spate. I crossed it on a low stone bridge and followed the road as it climbed gently out of the settlement.

Clashnessie Bay

For about the next mile, the road clung to the edge of Clashnessie Bay, often with a wall of craggy hillside on the right and a drop onto rocks being battered by waves to the left. It was still windy but, without the rain, that was merely exhilarating. I absolutely loved this stretch of the walk.

Clashnessie Bay
It didn’t quite blow me away, but it tried.
Waves crashing onto rocks
Not a day for paddling in the sea.
Strathcroy

Alas, it could not last forever. At the far end of the bay, the road turned inland and climbed, passing by a tarn named Loch na Bruthaich (‘loch of the braes’) and the three houses that comprise the hamlet of Strathcroy.

Craggy Moorland

Thereafter, it was open craggy moorland of the sort that had been awful during the downpour — or, more accurately, alongpour — but was starkly beautiful without it.

The weather, determined to test this proposition, experimented with spitting lightly but, by comparison with its previous efforts, this still counted as ‘dry’.

Loch Eileanach
Loch Eileanach
This is Loch Eileanach, bathed in soft mist. Its name is essentially ‘islandy loch’, which seems a fair enough description.
Oldany

Another mile of rugged moorland later, I passed below the farmstead of Oldany, which looks down upon the road from a hillside, and found myself at sea level on a bridge across the Oldany River as it spilled into a tidal creek named Lochan na Leòbaig (‘small loch of the flounder’).

Drumbeg

Lochs Drumbeg & Dhrombaig

The road was mostly wooded for the next half mile but emerged from the trees in time to reach the shores of Loch Drumbeg, not to be confused with nearby Loch Dhrombaig, which literally means ‘Drumbeg’s loch’.

Much like Loch Eileanach, Loch Drumbeg is a body of water with islands in it.
Whereas Loch Dhrombaig is water surrounding some islands. So, quite different.

Actually, one obvious difference would be if you were to taste them. Loch Drumbeg is an inland, freshwater loch, while Loch Dhrombaig is basically an embayment of the sea. Both are named for the village of Drumbeg (An Druim Beag, ‘the small ridge’), which is in turn named for the terrain feature that separates one from the other.

Drumbeg Hotel

Drumbeg is a large enough settlement to have a village shop, a tea room and a hotel, the latter being my destination for the day.

I stumbled through its doors, grateful for the chance to have a hot shower and a change into warm, dry clothes. A hearty meal and a couple of beers rounded the evening off, as did a chat with the hotelier about hiking and the nature of ‘peat roads’, a couple of which I’d seen signposted (they’re literally tracks onto the moorland to good sites for cutting peat for fuel).

Despite having done less mileage than either of the two previous days, I crawled into bed that night feeling far more tired — I guess my exertions were taking a cumulative toll. In the morning, I would sleep right through breakfast before setting off once again…


Distance Summary

Hasteful MammalThis time: 17 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,791 miles

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