THE second day of my seven-day trip began at a far more civilised hour than the first had and involved a proper breakfast, courtesy of the Applecross Inn. Fully fuelled, rested and re-energised, I stepped outside to commence the next stage…
On the other side of the door, I found Applecross Bay, waiting patiently for me.
Beyond Applecross Bay was the Inner Sound, separating the islands of Raasay (Ratharsair) and Skye (An t-Eilean Sgitheanach) from Great Britain. These were lovely to behold but I’d already walked much of Skye.
Of the photo above, the day’s walk would encompass only the headland poking in on the right. First, though, I needed to get to it, by skirting along the edge of Applecross Bay. I turned away and set off…
The walk around the bay was pretty delightful and I wasn’t the only person up and enjoying it. I paused to greet a cyclist who had bid me a cheery hello and then, when they’d cycled off, I paused a teensy bit longer.
I’m making it sound as though I was reluctant to get going, which I wasn’t. I was enjoying the peace and tranquillity of Applecross and, while I didn’t think the rest of the day would be riotous, I did know that it would be mostly on a road. Thus, I was dawdling a bit.
Applecross & Clachan
Applecross is really a spread-out collection of settlements, one of which is basically a church and a couple of buildings. This wasn’t really labelled on my Ordnance Survey map though older maps label it as ‘Glebe’ (a glebe being a parcel of land in a parish that supports the priest).
William Roy’s 1747-52 military map of the Highlands is often a bit approximate (though the best accuracy possible at the time) but its portrayal of Applecross Bay is pretty much perfect. He labelled Applecross House as Applecross, which is fair enough, and the site of the church as ‘Clachan’, which usually means ‘hamlet’.
Applecross House, which has a walled garden, was built not long before Roy compiled his map. It was home to the Mackenzies of Applecross. No doubt it’s lovely but I chose not to go see it; instead I went in search of Clachan Church.
The church was built in 1817 but stood on the site of a much older predecessor. But even that was a new development compared to the 7th century monastery that had come before it, founded by St Maelrubha (642-722) in the year 673.
Maelrubha was an Irish monk and a descendant of the Irish king Niall of the Nine Hostages. He had left Bangor in 671 with a group of monks and had wandered around Argyll and Ross for two years before settling on Applecross as the site of his sanctuary. The peninsula is still called ‘the Sanctuary’ in Gaelic (A’ Chromraich) to this day.
One of the buildings next to the church turned out to be a heritage centre, opened by the Applecross Historical Society in 2003 in what had previously been a derelict structure. Its openness didn’t extend to just after breakfast time on a Sunday morning, though, so all it could offer me was a peek through its window into its unlit interior.
In addition to its ancient antecedents, Clachan Church had drawn me towards it because I knew that behind it I could easily access a footpath.
Applecross Coast Road
Old Post Route
I said before that my plan for the day involved a lot of road walking and the road in question was specifically the Applecross Coast Road. This unclassified road (actually the C1091 so far as Highland Council is concerned) was built in the 1970s as an alternative access route to the Bealach na Bà, which is impassable in winter.
It was opened in 1975, incidentally putting the Kyle-Toscaig Ferry out of business (Toscaig is a hamlet four miles further south at the very end of a road from Applecross) and more-or-less followed the route of an old bridle road that served as the post route. It was the ‘less’ part of ‘more-or-less’ that drew me, for between Applecross and Sand the new road clung to the shore at sea level, while the old route had run higher and was still there.
Rubha na Guailne
While the road idled along at the level, the path climbed up to 150 m, rounding the headland of Rubha na Guailne (‘corner headland’). Somewhere between the two routes, clinging to the hillside, were the remains of prehistoric hut circles.
The path crossed a small stream on a footbridge, followed by another, where a stone-built abutment for the bridge betrayed the importance this route had once had. It then began to slowly lose height as it approached Sand.
The path didn’t lose quite enough height, so there was a steeper descent at the end, where it joined the road. Or, more accurately, where the road took over its alignment.
Other than the small beach and an obviously out-of-bounds naval base, there wasn’t a great deal to detain me at Sand, so I took to the road. It had less character than the old post path, but it also had fewer ups and downs and very nearly as little traffic.
The coast road headed north, running straight but rather scenic, and conveyed me past the farmhouse of Salacher and a turning for the tiny hamlet of Lonbain (An Lòn Bàn, ‘fair wet meadow’).
The next settlement along, Callakille (Cal na Cille, ‘meadow of the church’), wasn’t much bigger with maybe half a dozen houses, though historically it had once comprised 23 buildings. There, the road briefly diverged from the old post route, crossing the Allt na Mòine on a new bridge. The old footbridge was still in place but I perched on the railings of its replacement to take a short rest.
One reason why Callakille was an excellent place to take a breather was that immediately after the bridge the road climbed 40 m as if to mock my assertion that it was on the level.
At the top of the hill, I found a herd of Highland cattle mooching about and generally blocking the road. As is typical of Highland cattle, they were sporting some truly impressive-looking horns and would have been rather intimidating had I not known that they’re actually one of the more docile bovine breeds.
The cows had calves with them, which can be either a good thing or a bad one depending on how you behave and whether you have a dog (which I didn’t); I generally find it reassuring. Cows aren’t very bright but they do have strong instincts, so getting between a mother and her calf can be asking for trouble. On the other hand, not getting between a mother and her calf is generally asking to be left well alone, because she’s not going to risk injury by provoking a confrontation if she doesn’t need to — losing its mother would definitely be bad for the calf.
The upshot of this is that I calmly and confidently strode through the middle of the herd, carefully avoiding any of the calves, and the cattle watched me warily but otherwise didn’t react. I never expected them to. Nonetheless, I was a little relieved on reaching the far side of them — those really were some enormous horns. I should perhaps have snapped a photo of them but I didn’t want to spook them any more than I already had.
Instead, I stopped a little further on and looked down on Callakille. Heaps of rubble, dotted about the landscape, hinted at the buildings it had lost.
After the cows, the road continued north, mostly but not always sticking to the alignment of its bridle road predecessor. It deviated when crossing a couple of streams and completely bypassed the hamlet of Cuaig (Gaelic Cùthaig, from Old Norse for ‘cow bay’), where the old path had run right through it. I had vaguely intended to take the latter route but never spotted where the two alignments diverged. Shrugging my shoulders, I moved on…
The road was now following a bridle road alignment that was shown on the 1888-1913 Six inch OS map but not on the earlier 1843-1882 version. Also not shown on the earlier map were a pair of lochans, which the road took a sharp left turn to pass between. This was interesting because Aaron Arrowsmith had them on his 1807 map and Roy might have had them on his (it’s hard to match his terrain features up to the real ones).
Even when they did make it onto the OS map they weren’t named, so clearly they’re some sort of lacustrine secret that Ordnance Survey is trying to keep.
That part of the Highlands was liberally dotted with small lochans and the next one up was Loch Fada (‘long loch’), the existence of which OS was more confident about.
In the early OS edition, it was beyond the end of a road though the bridle road passed close to it by 1913. As I took that same route, over a hundred years later, I found the metalled surface pretty easy going but that didn’t mean my feet weren’t getting tired. I took another break beside the shore of Loch Fada and mused to myself as to whether a mere quarter mile merited the fada in its name.
After Loch Fada, the northwards trajectory of the coast road was arrested by virtue of running out of land. Loch Torridon (Loch Thoirbheartan) protruded into the coastline at this point, forcing the road to turn eastwards as it passed through the hamlet of Fearnmore (Na Feàrna Mòra, ‘the big alders’), another settlement much smaller than it once was.
On its far side, I saw a sign that I had hoped to see but hadn’t been sure that I would: the Applecross Coffee Bothy was open.
The Coffee Bothy is a mobile coffee and refreshments kiosk run part-time by its proprietor. My pre-trip research had alerted me of its existence but also that it was only open when it was likely to get enough custom.
Its Facebook page suggested that it had last been open in September but I’d seen a number of bikers out and about on the coast road and I was sure they made up a sizeable proportion of its patrons. As a sunny Sunday was a fairly good bet, even this early in the season, I’d been hoping and now my hopes were realised.
A restorative cup of tea and a bacon roll did wonders for my wellbeing and I chatted amiably with the proprietor while consuming them.
Our discussion of how lovely the weather was appeared to jinx it terribly as the sky clouded over and the temperature suddenly dropped. This coincided with a sudden influx of new customers so I left Coffee Bothy Man to it and, donning my coat against a chill wind, I hit the road again…
Fearnbeg & Arrina
Still following the alignment of the old bridle route, the coast road bypassed Fearnbeg (Na Feàrna Beaga, ‘the small alders’) and passed through the hamlet of Arrina (also called Arinachrinachd from Àirigh nan Cruithneachd, ‘shieling of the Picts’).
It swerved to go around the bulky 158 m mass of the hill called Meall na Coille (‘wooded lump’) before running beside the Camas an Eilean (‘bay of the island’). This, as its name promised, had an island in it — Eilean Mòr.
By now the weather had reverted to warm, though still clouded over. It remained so as the road veered south, its path still dictated by the demands of geography and geology, bypassing the hamlet of Kenmore (A’Cheannmhor, ‘the big head’).
Named for a jutting headland that it sits next to, Kenmore was another tiny smattering of houses sitting at the end of its own road. The Applecross Coast Road met that road a little after and, though the junction made Kenmore’s road into a mere side spur, this was really the 1975 road reaching its end.
The road between Kenmore and Shieldaig, though also based on a prior bridle track, was older than the Applecross Coast Road by a cat’s whisker, having been metalled and opened in 1970.
Old Bridle Track
The Kenmore-Shieldaig Road may have been based on the earlier bridle track but no sooner had I joined it than their alignments diverged. The latter crossed the Abhainn a’ Chracaich on a footbridge (which had still been a ford when the 1st edition OS maps were made), while the modern road veered south to make a crossing further upstream. The reason for this divergence was a 170 m hill called A’ Bhainlir, which late 1960s road-builders were keen to go around, whereas ponies and postmen scoffed at such a notion.
Though it involved more ascent, the old path was lovely, winding through the crags of A’ Bhainlir, while the modern road skirted Loch na Greige below. Examining the route on old OS maps, however, they suggest the route the path took was not actually that of the bridle path. Then again, they seem to suggest that the old path went straight up the next hill and through the middle of a lochan (not marked on old maps), so either the route has changed or the old maps weren’t as accurate as you’d hope.
Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed this bit.
Practice Makes Perfect
Just before I took the photo above, I encountered a woman walking the other way who smiled and nodded hello (as did I). Trailing a short distance behind her were two children who, as they got closer, seemed to be pepping each other up for some sort of challenge. I nodded hello.
’Good afternoon, sir,’ they chorused in unison, their English accented but word-perfect. They then grinned widely at each other. They had, I realised, been practising this and greeting me had been a proud achievement. I was already in good spirits on account of my surroundings but that had me smiling to myself for quite a while.
On the far side of A’ Bhainlir, the path offered an escape back to the road but it was clear I could also stick to it all the way to Ardheslaig (Àird Heisleag, ‘hazel bay headland’). Thus, as the road described a V-shape to cross the valley of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn (‘mill stream’) at a sedate rate of decline, I merrily dropped down into it with the path, re-joining the road beside the old barley mill, where a handy bridge crossed the stream.
Now back on the road, my pace picked up for all that my legs were growing tired. The road headed south to Inverbain along the shores of Loch Shieldaig, which is essentially an arm of Loch Torridon.
On the way, I got my first view of Shieldaig (Sìldeag, from ON síld-vík, ‘herring bay’), which shyly hid behind some islands.
Inverbain was not so much a hamlet as a house and attendant buildings and, though it has shrunk a little, was never very much larger. There I saw signs for a footpath that, had I taken it that morning, would have led me on an inland route direct from Applecross.
As lovely as Applecross had been, I rejected this offer of a route straight back there and kept on along the coast road. It rewarded me for my loyalty by veering slightly inland and then heading through woodland to properly obscure my view. It also undulated wildly in the vertical plane, as if to make sure that when I said my legs were tired, I really meant it. And I did.
The road calmed a little as it approached the head of Loch Shieldaig, relenting on its decision to deny me a view. I could now see Shieldaig on the other side of the loch and, to its right, the A896 road leading to it.
The coast road would be joining that A-road before long, I knew, but first it had to get past the head of the loch. Thus, for the final mile of unclassified coast road, I would be heading in the wrong direction, with Shieldaig getting further away behind me.
I was pleased to reach the A-road.
Approaching by A-Road
Just as it had been in Lochcarron and Tornapress, the A896 was quite quiet (though it being Sunday evening no doubt helped with that). I followed it the short distance back down the loch shore and took the turn off into Shieldaig. I had made it!
Tigh an Eilean Hotel
My prize for completing the day’s walk turned out to be a smack in the head, courtesy of a low ceiling on the stairs at the Tigh an Eilean Hotel. 5′ 8″ is, it turns out, tall enough that I should have heeded the hotelier’s warning. Ouch.
Something I did pay attention to was when she said they’d reserved a table for me for dinner. In no time at all I was washed, changed and enjoying good food with a large glass of wine to accompany it. It was a good end to the day.
This time: 21½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,624½ miles