HAVING made the decision not to trek up the coast to Cape Wrath, the final day of my September 2019 trip involved a straightforward amble up the A838 from Rhiconich (An Ruigh Còinnich, ‘the mossy slope’) to Durness (Diùranais, from Norse dyrnes meaning ‘deer promontory’)…
A quick glance out of the hotel window revealed dull grey skies but no actual rain. Some sheep stared back, a warning in their eyes that I’d better not back out of this walk.
The State of the A838
From Laxford Bridge to Rhiconich, the A838 had been a full-width two-way affair, which was good for traffic but less fun to walk on. I initially feared it would be the same all the way to Durness but a glance at the map disabused me of the notion. North of Rhiconich, my Ordnance Survey map showed the road in interrupted colour, indicating a single-track road with passing places; those are much more fun to walk.
It should, perhaps, have been obvious that this would be the case as the road improvements I’d seen up to Rhiconich weren’t for the benefit of tourists but for fish-laden lorries tearing south from Kinlochbervie (Ceann Loch Biorbhaidh), a working fishing port at the end of the B801. This B-road joined the A838 at Rhiconich (it runs up the right-hand side of Loch Inchard in the photo above), so anything further north was not going to benefit the fish lorries.
Creag Gharbh Mhòr & Loch Tarbhaidh
Allt an Eas Ghairbh
As it turned out, the A-road remained double-track for about a mile, singling itself as it passed beneath Creag Gharbh Mhòr (‘big rough crag’), a low, steep rocky ridge that extended for about another mile.
Below the road, the Allt an Eas Ghairbh (‘stream of the rough waterfall’) gurgled its way from Loch an Eas Ghairbh (‘loch of the rough waterfall’) to meet up with Achriesgill Water before flowing into Loch Inchard.
The stream split into channels and re-joined again as it traversed the marshy valley bottom, creating Eilean an Eich (‘island of the horse’)
Before long, I reached the end of Creag Gharbh Mhòr and the low cliff face that had characterised the right-hand side of the road dropped away, permitting me a view across open hillside to Ceann Gharbh (‘rough head’) the nearest peak (902 m) of Foinaven (Foinne Bhein, ‘white mountain’).
The road continued north-eastwards, soon reaching the confluence of two streams that came together to form Achriesgill Water. One of them, the Allt Leacach (‘flat stream’) was giving the lie to its name by tumbling down a short waterfall. Two unrelated vehicles had stopped to disgorge their occupants, who were taking photos of the falls. It seemed rude not to join in.
It was the other stream that the A-road now followed, namely the Allt Loch Tarbhaidh (‘Loch Tarbhaidh’s stream’). This, naturally enough, led me up its valley to Loch Tarbhaidh (tarbhaidh meaning ‘place of bulls’).
Overlooking Loch Tarbhaidh was an unexpected B&B, Ard-na-Bruthaich (‘height of the brae’), situated on the highest point of the road (172 m). It was unexpected because it wasn’t on my map, which I thought was just a few years old.
Looking closer, I see that while my map was reprinted with a new cover in 2016, the actual cartography is from 2008. Switching to Google Maps’ street view, the earliest view that has of Ard-na-Bruthaich is from 2009 and also shows a lorry and a mechanical digger, while such niceties as the fence around it and an outlying building had yet to be constructed.
Having been surprised by this decade-old house, I then didn’t see the next one, about half a mile away. Not because it wasn’t there but because its owners had gone to quite some effort to make sure that I didn’t.
Today the main residence of the Gualin Estate and used as holiday accommodation (housing 9 guests), Gualin Lodge (from a’ ghualainn, ‘the ridge’) was originally built by the Duke of Sutherland in 1833 as an inn on his newly-constructed road.
His original road still runs past its door but the A838 bypasses it through a cutting, on a short and incongruous section of two-lane road. This seems like a strange place to double the road and put in the bypass until you realise that it was funded by the Gualin Estate to keep the traffic at bay. A screen of conifer trees further bars any prying eyes and a strident notice on its access track (the original road) deters any unexpected visitors.
Not exactly what the Duke must have had in mind…
Allt na Gualainne
No sooner had the bypass ended than I encountered another deviation from the Duke of Sutherland’s plans, where the road had to cross the Allt na Gualainne (‘ridge stream’). There, the original bridge had been judged and found wanting, a new one having been erected.
Based on style, I’d say the latter was probably built in the 1930s, when a number of improvements were made to Scottish roads to make them more suitable for motor vehicles.
The Lower Strath
After the bridges, the character of my surroundings started to change. Much of the Gualin Estate occupied the upper part of Strath Dionard, a valley between the various mountains already mentioned but, at Gualin, Strath Dionard made a right-angled turn.
The A-road now descended through the lower part of this valley, slowly dropping down its western slope. Below the road lay an expanse of particularly boggy-looking moorland, while the ridge of Beinn Spionnaidh (‘mountain of strength’) stood opposite.
I really enjoyed this part.
A mile on from the two bridges, I felt as though my decision to take this road route was going rather well. It was also going past a well, which had a bright yellow plaque on it.
Peter Lawson’s Plaque
The plaque was affixed in 1883 by road surveyor Peter Lawson; the road itself was built in 1830 on the orders of the Marquess of Stafford (who later became the Duke of Sutherland).
Mr Lawson’s name is also attached to a plaque on the wall of Moine House, several days’ walk further down the road, which confirms when the road was constructed. Lawson was the Marquess’s road surveyor and instrumental in his road-building programme. He also took part in the duke’s funeral procession (Sutherland died in 1833, just six months after his elevation).
Given that it is dated 1883, some 50 years later, the plaque is clearly a commemorative gesture on Mr Lawson’s part.
A further mile down the road, I came to an isolated cottage — the former shepherd’s house of Carbreck, now offered as holiday accommodation via AirB&B.
It was in this house that the former Cape Wrath ferryman, John Morrison, grew up. He manned the ferry from Keoldale for 35 years until retiring last year to hand over to his son, Malcolm. The cottage appeared on the 1st edition OS map as Carraigbhreac, meaning ‘speckled rock’.
On the opposite side of the valley, connected by a rough access track that met the road near Carbreck, was another old shepherd’s cottage, this time named Rhigolter. This appeared in the OS 1st edition as ‘Ruighalldfhir’ i.e. Ruigh a’ Ghalldfhir, ‘slope of the lowlander’.
One storey high and with a slate roof, it blended well against its background and was quite hard to make out beneath grey skies. Both properties were part of the Sutherland estates in the 1870s, when the OS map was compiled.
Having passed Carbreck and Rhigolter, I was now descending towards the end of the valley, where the meandering River Dionard moved closer to the road. Eventually, of course, one had to cross the other. This could have involved me getting my feet wet but, fortunately, Lord Stafford, Mr Lawson & Co had anticipated my need.
The bridge is called Drochaid Mhòr, which simply means ‘big bridge’. And it is, compared to that other one at Gualin. It was built in the early 1830s as part of the road-building effort.
As you can see from the photo, the Dionard is quite broad at this point, and could probably be forded with nothing worse than wet shins but I was pretty thankful for the bridge nonetheless. I was particularly thankful for its parapet, on which I had a quick sit-down and rest.
A Wandering Weasel
As I sat there, I caught a swift movement in my peripheral vision. A tiny weasel, for whom the Dionard would have been a more significant barrier, had availed itself of the Drochaid Mhòr to get across. You don’t spot weasels all that often, so I stared at it in surprise. It, spotting me, disappeared into the heather in the blink of eye.
This behaviour is, of course, why weasels are not often spotted. I felt privileged to have seen it.
Kyle of Durness
Across the Drochaid Mhòr, the character of my environs changed again as the terrain levelled out and the Dionard broadened, ready to spill into the Kyle of Durness.
At the limit of high tide, a narrow footbridge at the end of an access track marked the lowest bridge across this waterway. This gave access to a couple of isolated farmsteads and, potentially, an overland route to the Cape Wrath ferry slipway via several miles of pathless hills.
Sticking with the A838 — which had actually been the B870 when first classified in the 1920s — I continued downstream. The Dionard’s estuary broadened still further, becoming the Kyle of Durness. It was showing quite a lot of sand, which looked inviting, but which can turn to deadly quicksand as the tides flow in and out.
Brochs & Rocks
I was now passing through a landscape dotted with the remains of Pictish towers and brochs, not I could actually pick any of them out against a general background of moorland and crags; a pile of natural rocks and a pile of rubble look pretty similar from a distance.
The Little Bridge
Before long, the A-road crossed another stream, the Allt Ach’ a’ Chorrain, where 1930s road-improvers had again judged Lord Stafford’s efforts and found them insufficient. This was apparently known as the ‘Little Bridge’ to contrast with the Drochaid Mhòr.
New Little Bridge Inscription
An engraved stone on the newer bridge confirmed that it had been built in 1939 (by W JR Watson, Contractors, of Edinburgh). Numerous repeated road resurfacings had half-obscured the name ‘Edinburgh’.
I was now pretty much entering the home stretch of the day’s walk, and I plodded along, tired but satisfied, as the kyle grew wider and increasingly filled with water. A couple of miles beyond the Little Bridge, I came to the turn off for Keoldale and the Cape Wrath ferry.
Keoldale comprises a handful of farmsteads along the road to the slipway and these had no particular interest for me at this point. What did grab my interest with both hands and shake me, was the existence of a burger van strategically situated at the turn-off.
It was doing a roaring, if opportunistic, trade and I had to queue to purchase a bacon roll. When I finally got it, I found that they had been pretty generous with the bacon and I was a happy mammal as I munched my way through it, gazing out over the kyle in the direction of the Keoldale slipway.
The rest and some hot food did me a power of good and I fairly skipped the final two miles to Durness. The road cut inland and, all of a sudden, I was seeing buildings up ahead.
Power Cut Problems
Tired but happy, I located the place where I was staying, only to be greeted with the ominous words ‘you can still stay here if you want, but…’ It transpired that the entire village had been suffering a power cut all day and thus the guest house had neither lighting nor heating.
There was just enough residual hot water for a stand-up wash (but no showers as they were powered) and some candle-light musing while the owners – who also had an attached restaurant – worked out what they could still cook purely using a gas hob.
To be honest, it wasn’t that terrible and it gave us guests something different to talk about.
Full Service Restored
With exquisite timing, the owners had just got their emergency menu written out when the power popped back on again, rendering it unnecessary.
With a fuller range of food options restored, I ate well that evening and crawled off to bed feeling fairly satisfied.
I hadn’t been to Cape Wrath yet, of course, but I still had plans for that…
This time: 14 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,847 miles