I MUST have been tired after three days of hiking because, on the fourth morning of my September 2019 trip, I first slept through my alarm and then slept right through breakfast. This was highly appropriate, though, as it was nine years since I set off on my first walk from Gravesend and I set off late then too.
I’m not big on breakfast, generally preferring to give myself a little time to wake up fully before I feel like eating anything, so I wasn’t unduly concerned about missing it. My hotelier was rather more alarmed and offered to make me breakfast anyway despite it being well after the time that she normally allotted for that meal.
I thanked her but politely declined, also turning down the offer of a packed lunch. I already had various snacks stowed away in my bag and a definite plan to stop for tea and sustenance on the way.
And so, unfed but with her best wishes ringing in my ears, I emerged from the Drumbeg Hotel to find the sky a dull yet threatening grey. I’d be getting rained on later, that was for sure; but, for the moment, I was free to march off along the B869, unmolested by moisture.
Drumbeg (An Druim Beag, ‘the small ridge’) is clearly shown on William Roy’s 1747-52 Military Survey map, although he spelt its name as ‘Trombag’. What his map didn’t show was any road leading to or from it but this is no surprise — before 1807 there were no roads at all in Sutherland. Boats were the primary way of getting anywhere, supplemented by a few rough pony tracks.
However, by the time the Ordnance Survey’s first relevant six-inch to the mile map was published in 1878, there was sufficient a road onwards from Drumbeg for it to be shown as a ‘main road’, although it only ran as far as nearby Nedd (An Nead, ‘the nest’). The modern B-road followed the same course, so I, in turn, did likewise.
B869 Coast Road
Loch Ruighean an Aitinn
The road began by climbing gently up the side of a valley, at the bottom of which the Allt a’ Bhraighe (‘stream of the hill’) flowed into Loch Drumbeg. When it had gained enough height, it turned left to crest a hill and dipped slightly to come alongside Loch Ruighean an Aitinn (‘loch of the juniper bank’), which nestled between hills, some 50 or so metres above sea level.
With copious vegetation, the loch was doing a nifty impression of a rather large English duck pond.
A little further on, I saw this:
The pig sign is wholly unofficial, as no such sign exists in the official Traffic Signs Manual and it should theoretically be removed by the authorities. But its intent is clear and, presumably, the owner of some pigs is fed up with people running them over, while the manual only covers cows, sheep, horses, toads, wildfowl and miscellaneous wild animals.
So far as the designers of our road signs are concerned, pigs in the road is an impossibility! This sign can only be a lie.
I saw no pigs, so maybe they’re right. Or maybe they’ve all been run over.
Shortly thereafter, the B-road swept swinelessly down to the hamlet of Nedd, where, according to the OS 1st edition, it stopped (which was still an improvement on Roy’s day when ‘Loch Ned’, as he named it, had no road at all).
Fortunately for me, by the time the OS 2nd edition map was printed in 1907, the inward road had been connected through the village to what had been (in the 1st edition) a minor outward track beginning on Nedd’s far side. Thus, the B-road continued, dropping down to sea level on the shores of Loch Nedd.
I paused for a moment on the shore of Loch Nedd, suitably thankful that I’d made it this far alive. Not that I’d feared that I wouldn’t exactly — I’m not swinophobic — but not everyone making that journey has always got where they were going.
The Murder of Murdoch Grant
In particular, an itinerant pedlar named Murdoch Grant disappeared between Drumbeg and Nedd in 1830. Four weeks later, his body was fished out of the appropriately-named Loch Tòrr na h-Eigin (‘loch of the distress knoll’). His corpse was found by a farm worker, who noticed, on pulling him out, that his pockets had been turned out. In addition, his backpack was missing and his face was injured — clearly he had been robbed and murdered!
Mr Grant’s murder, or rather the investigation and trial that followed it, had some interesting quirks, which I’ll get to in a moment. It also serves as a beautiful example of the limitations of Wikipedia, which I often use as a starting point for research.
As I write this, the Wikipedia article on Murdoch Grant gets wrong both the name of the loch he was found in (it has ‘for’ instead of ‘tòrr’, creating a nonsense name) and its location (it says that it’s ‘almost’ a mile from Drumbeg; it’s actually just over). It is however quite correct in noting that Loch Tòrr na h-Eigin is remote — it’s in high, open moorland in the middle of nowhere, a good mile off where the roads would be built.
Kenneth the Dreamer
The quirky aspect to Mr Grant’s fate is that the investigation, which initially went nowhere, eventually placed suspicion upon a schoolteacher named Hugh Macleod who was spending rather more freely than his salary accounted for.
A search of his house turned up nothing but then a tailor named Kenneth Fraser — known also as ‘Kenneth the Dreamer’ — claimed to have dreamt that Macleod hid the missing belongings under a cairn of stones near his house. The authorities searched again and this time found some evidence.
At the subsequent trial, Fraser testified for the prosecution — the only recorded occasion that ‘Second Sight’ was admitted in evidence in a Scottish criminal trial. Macleod was found guilty and even made a confession before he was hanged for the crime, admitting he used a hammer to murder the pedlar.
After his execution, Macleod’s body was transported to Edinburgh and dissected for medical science.
Abhainn Gleann Leireag
Since I hadn’t been murdered and I did have a road, I thought it best to put the latter to good use. It led me along Loch Nedd to its head, where I crossed over the Abhainn Gleann Leireag (‘larch glen river’) via a small stone bridge.
On the far side was a farmstead and cottage that, together with another house on the hillside, are all that today make up the hamlet of Glenleraig (Gleann Leireag, ‘larch glen’).
Like so many vanished or much-reduced settlements, Glenleraig was a victim of the Highland Clearances, when landowners turfed out tenants, usually to make way for more profitable sheep farming. Before 1812, when it was cleared, there had been at least twenty rectangular buildings, and several sheep folds and small enclosures (the Highlanders also kept livestock but not on a scale that could enrich their landlords).
The climb out of Glenleraig was pretty steep but I was protected from overheating in my exertion by the arrival of the rain. As it coolingly spattered my face, I paused beside the aforementioned house on the hillside to look back down to Loch Nedd.
The Invisible Quinag
Accompanied by my old friend, Precipitation, I followed the road as it turned to climb up a side-valley and then broke out onto open hill-top moorland.
In theory, I should have had great views of the mountain range called Quinag (A Chuineag, ‘the milk pail’, named for its shape) but the rain, in addition to cooling my body, was keen to cool my spirits as well; it mistily rationed out glimpses of the scenery, lest I get too excited.
The road climbed again, passing a lochan named Loch nan Claidhmhnean (‘loch of the swords’). Looking north, I could see that Eddrachillis Bay (Eadar Dà Chaolas, ‘between two kyles’) was getting better weather than I was.
North Coast 500
As I plodded along, hood up against the rain, I was passed by the first of several motoring clubs out for a drive on the NC500 tourist route. I had already been passed by the occasional car but now I started to see groups of motorcyclists and small convoys of classic cars, such as Triumph Spitfires or MG Bs.
The latter group whizzed past just after the road reached a summit at 137 m. There, the rain eased off and Loch Ardbhair (from àird bhàirr, ‘top headland’) came into view.
Allt na Claise
The rain stopped altogether as I zig-zagged my way down a hillside into the valley of the Allt na Claise (‘stream of the cleft’), which flows down from Sàil Ghorm (‘blue heel’), one of the Quinag peaks.
The stream itself was crossed by means of a stone bridge, where I paused to let a small flock of white Minis dash past like automotive sheep.
From the bridge, which sat at an elevation of about 70 m, a steep climb to 148 m followed, during which I saw one red Mini, all on its own, as if chasing after the white ones, who had cast it out for nonconformity.
At the top of the hill, I paused for breath and looked upon Gleann Ardbhair, taking good note of my next down-and-up.
At the bottom of the glen was a bridge with a passing place on either side of it. In the photo above, you can just see a car in the far passing place, its driver having parked there and then got out (which, of course, you’re not meant to do).
As I descended, a car going the other way likewise stopped there so that the road was completely blocked. Why would they do such a thing? Had there been an accident, I wondered?
The answer turned out to be that there was a gloriously antlered stag by the side of the road and they’d both stopped to take photos of it, cornering it in the process. In doing so, the bloke who’d got out of his car was risking limb if not life. It was still a bit early for rutting season, so the animal wasn’t likely to be a testosterone-charged murder-monster, but it had to be feeling pretty nervous about how close he was getting and it did have a head full of stabby things.
Fortunately for all involved, the humans in the scenario soon had their fill of photography and the second vehicle drove off as the first bloke returned to his car. With a window of escape now open to it, the stag took off up the inclining road at a rate I’d have no hope of matching when it was my turn. By the time I’d got anywhere near the spot, it had long gone.
I was a little disappointed to have missed getting a photo of the stag, though happy to have not contributed to its distress and happier still to not need to attempt first aid on someone whose close-up of antlers had been more extreme than they planned.
Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin
The climb out of Gleann Ardbhair was the steepest incline yet and the rain swept back in to make sure I was cool as I made my way up it. With the weather and gradient, it seemed to take an age to reach the top but reach it I eventually did; suddenly, I was back in open moorland, catching glimpses of Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin (‘lock of the white cairn’) ahead.
I passed the access track of the isolated farmstead of Rientraid and gently started to descend again, the roadside becoming wooded as I did so. From one bend, I got a clear view of the loch and the island of Eilean a’ Ghamhna (‘stirk island’, where a stirk is a male calf, put out to graze on poorer ground). I couldn’t see any stirks though.
Decline Without Fall
The rain decided to relent just as the road reached a layby. I took this opportunity to sit down, drink some water and eat those snacks I was carrying.
The layby was also occupied by a car, the driver of which had hopped up onto a nearby rocky promontory to enjoy the view while his family stayed resolutely in their warm dry vehicle. Theirs proved to be the more sensible choice as the rain had turned the track to mud and he slid down it, arms windmilling wildly, like a skier who’d forgotten his skis.
The poor chap looked pretty shamefaced but I, unlike his family, was not about to mock efforts. Not with my winning combo of poor balance and a dodgy knee.
Port an t-Suainich
The descent down the 25% decline was knee-threateningly brutal but mercifully brief and the road soon levelled out again. It then dropped gently to Port an t-Suainich (‘Port of the Swede’), where there was access to the shore, servicing a fish farm between it and Eilean a’ Ghamhna.
Allt a’ Ghamna
The road, still wooded, began to climb again as it headed up the loch. Before long, it reached the mouth of the Allt a’ Ghamna (‘the stirk’s stream’) and continued up its valley. The road now gained a low stone wall to my left, separating me from a plummet into rushing waters, which — being in spate — were making quite a noise.
Quinag Partially Unveiled
After a while, I crossed over the stream and found myself conveyed up the valley wall until the road broke back out into open moorland. There, I finally got a proper look at Quinag, though the tops of Sàil Gharbh (‘rough heel’) and Sàil Ghorm were still hidden in cloud:
Sàil Gharbh is 808 m high but the road merely topped out at 118 m before winding gently down towards Loch Unapool. I was ready for another break now, and glad of the easy going nature of a road built sometime around 1920.
End of the B-Road
A road that had existed before 1920 was the modern A894, which had first been laid down during a roadbuilding frenzy that occurred between 1812 and about 1830. This road ran from a junction with the Lochinver Road at Skiag Bridge up to Scourie, by means of the Kylesku Ferry.
As it happened, Scourie was exactly where I wanted to go, so I was not displeased as the B869 snaked its way down to a junction.
A894 Scourie Road
The A-road was roughly twice as old, twice as wide and twice as busy as the B-road and I reckon its traffic was going twice as fast. Even so, it was by no means especially difficult or dangerous and I ambled along it quite contentedly until I came to a layby with a bench and an information sign.
There, I paused to take a photo of the view across Loch Glencoul (from gleann cùil, ‘glen at the back’). The bench was well-sited, being an excellent spot to observe the Glencoul Thrust, an example of thrust faulting that arose when the mountains were formed, resulting in a geological sandwich in which Cambrian sedimentary rocks sit upon older Lewisian gneiss with another band of older gneiss now also resting on top of it.
Continuing on, the road snaked its way around the base of two rocky hills — Cnoc na Cairidh (‘fish-pond knoll’) and Cnoc na Mòine (‘bog knoll’) — to arrive at the hamlet of Unapool.
There, in the old school building, I found the North West Highlands Geopark Visitor Centre, which included a café. A longer sit-down with a cup of tea and an actual, edible sandwich did wonders for my energy levels.
A Faceful of Wind
Fed, watered and rested, I set off from Unapool with renewed vigour, which was just as well. The road climbed, showing signs of realignment, and I found myself suddenly receiving a howling gale to the face. I’d had rain on and off all morning but no wind, so this was a shock. It seemed to be being funnelled down Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin and directly onto me.
Refusing to be deterred by a bit of blowy weather, I kept moving, coming soon to a turn-off for the village of Kylesku (An Caolas Cumhang, ‘narrow strait’). The turn-off was the route of the 18th-century road and, until 1984, had also been that of the A-road. It led to a slipway, from where a free ferry once carried traffic across the loch, weather permitting.
As was often the case, the crossing site grew into a thriving settlement and still boasts a hotel today, even though the ferry ended over thirty years ago.
The immediate cause of the ferry’s demise was a bridge, but the impetus behind building that was that if the ferry was unable to run then a hundred-mile detour was the closest alternative route. The bridge is an all-weather crossing, for expected parameters of weather.
The bridge crosses the kyle onto a big rock called Garbh Eilean (‘rough island). It used to be a tidal island but 1980s road construction has ensured that a causeway maintains a permanently dry crossing back onto the mainland.
The wind that had buffeted me previously turned out to be as nothing compared to that which tore at me as I crossed the bridge and causeway but the moment I reached the far side, it dropped to nothing.
XIIth Submarine Flotilla
A plaque beside the viewpoint commemorated the 50th anniversary of the XIIth Submarine Flotilla on 10th April 1993. This wartime flotilla trained in Lochs Glencoul and Glendhu (Gleann Dubh, ‘black loch’) with X-craft (3-man midget submarines) and Chariot manned torpedoes (even smaller subs with a detachable warhead, which two men rode by sitting on the outside).
‘Manned torpedo’ makes it sound like the Chariot was some sort of kamikaze device but that wasn’t the idea at all; the crew were supposed to leave the warhead next to their target on a timer, not ram themselves into it and die.
The A-road did some ramming through things of its own, cutting through rocky outcrops in a way that road-builders in 1984 could achieve but those in the 1820s could never have hoped for.
On the far side of the causeway, it met up with the old road from Kylestrome (Caol Sròim, ‘strait of the current’) — Kylesku’s northern shore counterpart — and then climbed its way up a hillside. The climb wasn’t savage but went on for most of a mile and I took advantage of another viewpoint to stop and get my breath back.
Loch Allt na h-Airbhe
The next mile and a half featured a lot of cuttings, woodland and hints of realignments, which date to the late 1970s and early ’80s. I passed one sizeable loch (Loch Allt na h-Airbhe, ‘loch of the stream at the boundary wall’) and a couple of lochans but these were mostly glimpsed through the trees.
As I went, I looked out for the next major deviation of alignments, where the old road would veer off to take a 19th century stone bridge over the Allt na h-Airbhe, while the new would cross Loch Duartmore (from Dubhaird Mhòr, ‘large black headland’), into which that river flows.
As it turned out, I looked out for it very badly. The old route was marked as a no-through road and had prominent sign for Duartmore Hatchery, so I took it for a fish farm’s site entrance rather than what it was. I only realised when I found myself standing on the new Duartmore Bridge, which was built in 1979.
In something of a recurring theme, after crossing its new bridge, the road climbed for a while to reach a layby and viewpoint at the top, with which to reward the effort.
Old Duartbeg Road
Beside Loch a’ Mhinidh (‘loch of the awl’), the 1979 alignment met back up with its 19th-century predecessor, which was gated and mossy and had likely seen no traffic for decades. Then, less than a mile later, the two alignments split again.
The old route went right, heading for Duartbeg (Dubhaird Bheag, ‘small black headland’) via a gated track. I was pleased to see that its ‘no unauthorised access’ sign was paired with the message ‘walkers welcome’ and I paused to weigh my choices — this had always been something of an optional inclusion in my plan but would add another mile to the day, were I to do it.
I was strongly tempted to go via Duartbeg but reluctantly opted not to; my legs were tired, it was getting late and the sky was threatening more rain. It was a sensible call but, in retrospect, I do regret cutting it out.
Geisgeil & Loch Bad nam Mult
The A-road wound through several cuttings and past various small lochs before the old route from Duartbeg rejoined it. Thereafter, a straightened section cut through high ground that the road had once curved over, before dropping down to an isolated and padlocked cottage at Geisgeil (Gìsgil, from the Norse for ‘crushing ravine’) and the edge of Loch Bad nam Mult (‘loch of the wethers’ thicket’, where a wether is a castrated ram).
Another straightened road section led on to the village of Badcall (Am Bad-call, ‘the hazel clump’). It largely bypassed the actual village but a prominent sign announced that the Eddrachilles Hotel could be found there.
This establishment resides in an 18th-century Presbyterian Church of Scotland manse, probably built in the 1760s (when a wave of such building occurred). I wasn’t staying in the Eddrachilles Hotel but was given cause to wish that I was when the rain returned with a vengeance.
Damp, dismayed and with some distance yet to go, I trudged onwards, following the road as it climbed up the side of a valley.
Loch an Daimh Mòr
The last couple of miles were pretty miserable, if I’m honest. The rain was cold and heavy and gusts of wind turned it intermittently sideways. The road wound its way along the shore of some small lochs and I paused beside one — Loch an Daimh Mòr (‘loch of the big stag’) — more because I was glad to be in the lee of a neighbouring hill than for any other reason.
It was with some relief and slightly sooner than I expected, that I entered Scourie (Sgobhairigh, ‘shed shieling’), having failed to realise that I had another mile of walking through it before I’d get to the hotel.
By the time that I did, I was sufficiently cold and wet that I didn’t figure it would do any worse damage if I went and took a photo from Scourie’s harbour before checking in. Naturally, it chose that exact moment to stop raining; after all, what would be the point if I wasn’t out in it?
Scourie is today in the Highland council area and, before that, was part of the county of Sutherland, which was named for the Norse Suðrland (‘southern lands’). But, while the Norse Earl of Orkney claimed dominion over it, control of the county’s northwest corner was long contentious, for this was Mackay Country (Dùthaich MhicAoidh) and the Mackays weren’t big on bowing to anyone else.
The Scourie Hotel, through whose doors I now gratefully passed, is shown on old maps as the Stafford Arms. This seems at first an odd choice as Stafford is in England, hundreds of miles south. It was so-named on account of George Leveson-Gower, Marquess of Stafford (1758-1833), an English lord who married Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland (1765-1839). Later created Duke of Sutherland, it was his son who established the coaching inn that then became the hotel.
Having checked in, I had just enough time to get clean, warm and changed and dash downstairs to order dinner while the restaurant was still open. The food, when it came, was excellent. As I tucked in, I reflected that, had I succumbed to my desire to take the Duartbeg old road, I’d have arrived at Scourie just slightly too late to eat.
That night, I crawled off to bed feeling fed and satisfied and with only one slight concern — come morning would the rainclouds still be waiting as they’d threatened?
This time: 21½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,812½ miles