FOLLOWING my thirty-miler from Durness to Tongue, I slept the sleep of the absolutely steam-rollered. Come the next morning, my body was not at all keen to stop sleeping and carry on with the walking part of my walking trip.
I couldn’t blame it.
Hoping perhaps that bright sunshine and Caledonia’s rugged beauty might get me in the ambulatory mood, I threw back my hotel room curtains. Grey, miserable drizzle stared right back at me, concealing any scenic aesthetics behind a watery veil. Ah well. At least the risk of sunburn would be low…
In truth, I didn’t particularly mind the rain. It wasn’t bucketing down and the forecast was for intermittent showers, which promised at least some moments where Scotland wouldn’t be pouring cold water on my plans. For the moment, I was pretty sure I could handle it.
Kyle of Tongue
Fortified with breakfast, I ventured out into the wet weather and began my slightly dampened trek north up the A838. Off to my left, I saw a lumpy headland that had been fortified not with bacon and eggs but with actual fortifications — Castle Varrich (Caisteal Bharraich).
Thought to be a 14th century construction on the site of an old Norse fort, Castle Varrich was initially held by the Bishops of Caithness, before becoming the seat of Clan Mackay. The Mackays later abandoned it, building Tongue House instead. This may have been a tactical error as Cromwellian troops burnt the house down in 1656 but the Mackays rebuilt it in 1678. They got to enjoy the new version of it for about 150 years, before selling it to the Countess of Sutherland to settle a financial debt.
The arms of Lord Reay, chief of Clan Mackay, were unusually busy. The muzzled bears’ heads and gold chevron wouldn’t have seemed excessive but, for me, the addition of a stag’s head and hands holding daggers upon the chevron potentially pushes it from ‘distinctive’ into ‘overly fussy’ territory. Your mileage may vary.
Kyle of Tongue Bridge
Both the castle and the house would have overlooked an obvious crossing point of the Kyle of Tongue (Caol Thunga), where the tongue of land that it’s named for jutted out into the sea loch. Being a natural narrow point, this was the point at which the old ferry crossed.
The ferry service ceased in 1956 as increasing numbers of motorists were willing to clog up the narrow road around the head of the kyle but, in 1971, this traffic was redirected back to the natural crossing point by the construction of a causeway and bridge. The building of such a bridge was actually first mooted in the 1830s though its early proposers would not see it in their lifetimes.
The causeway part wasn’t entirely new — one had already stretched out across the tidal flat to Eilean Thunga (‘Tongue Island’), from where the ferry ran in low tide conditions. But the 1971 construction saw it made suitable for motor vehicles and a bridge put in place near where that ferry had crossed. After forty years of use, the bridge was refurbished in 2011 to keep it standing for another forty.
A Change of A-Road
As I drew roughly level with the causeway, the A838 came to an end. Which is not to say that the road came to an end, far from it, but another road — the A836 — joined it from the side. However, thanks to the complications of British road designations, the latter A-number failed to stop and kept going, giving the road upon which I was walking upon a sudden change of identity.
Now the A836, it led me past Tongue’s war memorial — an attractive Celtic cross — and then became lined with the trees of Tongue Wood. Somewhere below me on the waterline, at this point, was Tongue House.
Also screened by some of the trees was the tiny hamlet of Rhitongue (Ruigh Thunga, ‘Tongue slope’), which the A-road basically bypassed. Like Tongue, this settlement had been clearly indicated on William Roy’s 1747-52 map of Scotland (he labelled it ‘Ritongue’).
Ahead, I could see the mouth of the kyle with its jutting sandbars and, beyond that, the Rabbit Islands in Tongue Bay.
The road that is now the A836 running north out of Tongue had been there a while. Whereas the road I’d walked the day before was built in 1830, and plenty of Scotland’s roads were built by Thomas Telford in the early 1800s, this one had already been in place a half century prior to Telford and significant enough that Roy had shown it on his map.
According to that map, the next settlement on the route was ‘Caldbaggy’, where the road would turn inland. It would not be extending to ‘Scoulamy’, the next settlement he’d marked along the coast.
Eilean nan Ròn
Eilean nan Ròn means ‘island of the seals’. In addition to any seals that may call it home, it used to have permanent human residents. No fewer than 73 people called the island home in 1881, for instance. The final nine residents departed in 1938, though, and it has remained uninhabited since which, if nothing else, is peaceful for the seals.
Continuing along the A836, I found that William Roy’s 18th-century cartography skills did not let me down. The road bent around to the right as he’d indicated, conveying me into the little village of Coldbackie (Callbacaidh), i.e., his ‘Caldbaggy’.
A small crofting township, Coldbackie comprised a handful of houses, all arrayed along one side of the road, facing fields on the other. A 307 m hill, Cnoc an Fhreiceadain (‘watch hill’), provided a backdrop to the cottages.
The actual etymology of Coldbackie is uncertain though probably Norse rather than Gaelic. Probably the most convincing explanation for the name is kald (‘cold’) + bakki, (‘bank’ or ‘hill’), which nicely shifts the thermal discomfort up its slope.
Strathtongue Free Church
Coldbackie was pleasant enough but it possessed no facilities to detain me and I was soon beyond it, following the A-road as it snaked inland. About half a mile beyond Coldbackie, I passed what used to be Strathtongue Free Church.
The Free Church of Scotland arose during the Disruption of 1843 — a popular religious rebellion against the established Church of Scotland, which allowed feudal landlords a say in the appointment of ministers. Free Church adherents were all about electing their own, even if they had to build entirely new churches for them to preach in.
Strathtongue Free Church was built in the 1840s, opening its doors in 1847 with the Revd Hugh Mackay Mackenzie as its minister. Acting as the Free Church for the whole Tongue area, it was initially popular but eventually a series of mergers saw most of the Free Church reunited with the Church of Scotland. No longer needed, Strathtongue Free Church closed its doors in 1950 and was sold off into private hands.
Continuing on down the road soon brought me to Strathtongue itself, a tiny string of houses that did not feature on Roy’s map, nor on the 1807 map of Aaron Arrowsmith (1750–1823). It may just have been too tiny to note.
It was certainly there a decade or so later, when the General View of the Agriculture of the County of Sutherland, published in 1815 by John Henderson, noted that Strathtongue housed three families who paid £14 in annual rent and who had some sheep on about three acres of arable land.
Beyond Strathtongue, I encountered Lochan Dubh (‘black tarn’), a small patch of open water with an extremely unoriginal name.
There are literally hundreds of lochs and lochans dubh all over Scotland, named for the colour of their peaty beds. So many, in fact, that my immediate thought was ‘oh, that’s the first one of the day.’ It wasn’t really much to look at.
The road passed to the north of Lochan Dubh (you can glimpse it on the left in the photo above) before taking a wide southerly loop.
There were several different tracks indicated on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map (published 1878), which still show vaguely on the ground, one of which later became the A-road; interestingly, it wasn’t even the main one.
I spotted the track that had been considered an actual road in 1878 but in 2019 it would have required more boggy squelching than I felt inclined to indulge in. The A-road was fine for the moment, as it detoured around the next colour-themed body of water, which was Loch Buidhe (‘yellow loch’).
The blueness of Loch Buidhe was in no small part due to a huge gap in the cloud cover that had quietly opened up. For the next couple of miles, I enjoyed some surprisingly fierce sunshine.
As I started stripping off layers, I found myself wondering if sunburn might be on the cards after all. I immediately stamped on such negative thoughts. I knew I had a bottle of sunscreen stowed in the bottom of my bag, if I really needed it, and this spell of bright weather was actually very welcome.
Sadly, however, the clement weather was not to last.
Due east of Loch Buidhe, I left the A-road, taking a side-road north. This was the road to Skerray, labelled as ‘Skerry’ on Roy’s map though in his day there wasn’t a road. I became doubly glad that there was one now for, when I was halfway along it, a band of rain swept right over me, topping up the moistness of the boggy moorland that surrounded it. The firm, metalled surface was greatly appreciated.
With my hood up against the drizzle, I kept following the road as it carried me up towards Loch Modsarie. Close to the loch stood the hamlet of Modsary — ‘Measary’ on Roy’s map — comprising just a handful of houses.
Finding a brief pause in the rain, I paused near one of these properties to look back down the road and over Loch Modsarie to see the next rain band sweeping in from the southwest.
Short, Sharp Shower
My forecast was pretty accurate, and I soon found myself plodding along, hood up, head down and wondering how one builds an ark. Fortunately, I had no need to start measuring things in cubits for, no sooner had the rain engulfed me as it had gone again.
Sunshine & Rainbows
The sky brightened and patches of blue appeared. Red, orange, yellow, green and violet also made a brief appearance, arcing gracefully across the sky. Everything was sunshine and loveliness as I ambled into Skerray (Sgeirea).
Skerray was traditionally a crofting township but it suffered something of a population crash in the 20th century, losing four fifths of its residents.
Tourism is now an ever-increasing part of its economy, with cottages turning into holiday homes and a small museum next to its post office. These two delights lay in another part of the village, however, and (for now) I saw only cottages as the road snaked its way leisurely through the countryside.
Before long, the road brought me to a T-junction, where I could go left or right. Right was the direction that I needed in order to continue but left, my map told me, would take me to Skerray Harbour. I was tired by then and dearly wanted a sit down and a harbour sounded like a nice place to have one.
Resigned now to getting another drenching, I sat on the nearest sittable-on thing and watched as islands and headlands vanished into greyness. The loss of visibility was swift and absolute. One moment I was enjoying a fairly pleasant view, the next I could see precisely nothing. I knew that all I need do was wait it out though, and the monotony would end. Full colour service would resume shortly…
I continued to sit, dripping coldly, as the rainbow also faded and the returning sunshine brought new warmth. It brought it in spades and, not only did I dry off with alacrity, but I soon found myself stripping off layers again and musing about sunscreen.
One thing that I couldn’t, in all conscience, say about the weather was that it was boring.
Returning to the T-junction, I now took the other direction, conveying me towards Achtoty, Airdtorrisdale and Skerray’s shop and post office. I had dawdled along all morning and then spent quite a while by the harbour, so now I decided to pick up my pace a little.
The road then conveyed me past a row of delightful stone cottages.
Post Office Shop
I found myself vaguely hoping the PO shop would be open, so that I might purchase some sort of snack and a drink more flavourful than just water. I’d had enough water. My hopes, of course, were cruelly dashed; I was way outside its limited opening hours.
The graveyard, lest I give the wrong impression, was about half a mile further down the road, on the edge of the hamlet of Torrisdale (Tòrasdal).
Though most of the houses were set inland and upon some high ground, the burial ground sat right on the shoreline of Torrisdale Bay. Emptying into this roughly rectangular embayment were the rivers Borgie and Naver and a small stream, the Allt Tarsuinn.
In times past, the Borgie had been not just a physical barrier but also the boundary between the land of Lord Reay, chief of Clan Mackay, and that of the Countess of Sutherland. Since my destination lay on the Sutherland side of the river, I would need to find a way across.
As it turned out, crossing the Borgie on foot proved no problem at all:
This footbridge was close to the mouth of the Borgie, while the nearest vehicular bridge was a couple of miles upstream.
Once across the bridge, I found myself, as I thought I might, following an indistinct path across soft ground. It wound across this mesopotamian marshland to a smaller but still serviceable footbridge across the Allt Tarsuinn. Beyond that, the ground was firmer and drier and this is where things started to go wrong…
On the far side of the Tarsuinn, the path appeared to run in both directions, left and right. I knew that right was, well, right, so that’s the way I went. It started off well but quickly faded out, becoming overgrown with chest-high bracken and only the vaguest of hints as to where it might go next. I quickly lost all trace of it but thought I’d then regained it. I had not; my new trail led me straight to the banks of the Tarsuinn. As did another I found a few moments later. The actual path was nowhere to be seen.
An Alternative Option
Well, okay, but I was not defeated. I had a map, I knew where it was going. I could, if I wanted, just force my way through the bracken until I got there. No big deal. Or, I realised, I could try something else. The left-hand path, back at the second footbridge, had clearly been heading around to the beach. And while the actual path required bracken-bashing, the beach was probably passable. I decided to give it a go.
Doing the Dunes
The left-hand path started muddily but quickly turned broad and sandy before rising to crest a line of dunes. Below, there was plenty of broad flat beach I could have walked on but I was in the dunes now and my path up there was just as clear and surprisingly level.
This portion of my walk, ambling along the dune path in bright, dry weather, the roar of the sea to my left, was absolutely wonderful.
The path continued to be quite easy going as it gently undulated over the dunes to pass by a standout terrain feature that wasn’t marked on my OS Landranger map but which the early six-inch editions had simply labelled ‘rock’.
It seems to have been a parish boundary marker, the boundary having veered east of the Borgie near its mouth.
The path conveyed me the length of the bay before losing height and depositing me on a broad beach. Ahead lay the River Naver and, beyond that, I could actually see the Bettyhill Hotel, where I would be staying for the night. I just had to get there.
The Flow Tide
A quick glance at the time and the tide table warned me that, before I got to Betthyhill, I needed to get off that beach. The tide had turned and was on its way in and a beach that broad and flat would be underwater in no time. Thus, I headed upstream in search of the bridge, which I knew I ought to find at Invernaver (Inbhir Nabhair).
Had I done this walk in 1878, when the OS 1st edition was published, I’d have had less luck in finding the bridge as it hadn’t yet been built. There would, however, have been a ferry.
The bridge was in place by 1908, when the 2nd edition was published, and is slightly unusual in that its parapets are formed of plated girders, which are actually a vital load-bearing part of its structure rather than just an addition to prevent you from falling off.
Achina & Dalcharn
Invernaver Bridge’s plated girders proved more than capable of bearing my weight and I was soon across and ambling back downstream upon the A-road. I passed through the hamlets of Achina and Dalcharn, after which the road curved around into Betthyill.
Just before it did, I paused to look across at that beach I’d not hung around on.
The ‘Betty’ in Bettyhill
Bettyhill was created in the early 19th century by Elizabeth, 19th Countess of Sutherland, who cleared some 15k people off her estates between 1811 and 1821, driven by a combination of financial imperative and the arguably delusional belief that she was improving their lives by forcing an end to their crofting subsistence.
Most of those cleared were just plain out of luck but the fortunate few were given new homes and Bettyhill was built for exactly that purpose. She built it in a location known as Am Blàran Odhar (‘the dun field’) in Gaelic but in English she named it after herself.
While still not massive by any means, Bettyhill has grown over its two centuries of existence to be the largest village for miles and something of a local centre with a school, a hotel and a couple of shops.
Today, Bettyhill may or may not still be growing. Directly opposite the hotel was a field which gave testament to one failed attempt to expand it.
In it, a roadway had been laid out for a development of seven houses after planning permission was granted in 2007. For some reason, the top layer of asphalt was never poured and the planning permission lapsed in 2013, leaving a small flock of sheep the only residents.
My destination, was of course the hotel overlooking this field. Formerly the Bettyhill Inn, it was built in 1819, during Bettyhill’s earliest days.
This time: 14½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,902½ miles