AFTER the conclusion of my seven-day walking trip last April, I had blithely assumed that the next one would happen in May, or June at a push. As things turned out, they were far pushier than that. Due in part to my own commitments but mostly to difficulty in booking accommodation, I had to wait until September, by which time the glorious summer weather was pretty much over.
When one is walking from place to place to another place and so on, one requires accommodation in each of those places on consecutive nights and in the right order. That had proved largely impossible — the North Coast 500, as the tourist promotion of the Highland coast road has been marketed, has been a tremendous success; this is no doubt a good thing for the region but proved a right pain for me.
So why, you may be asking, did I not simply go camping? To which I can only answer with a rude noise. Camping is absolutely not my idea of how to end a day of walking umpty miles in the rain. I want a hot shower and an actual bed and a room that requires no assembly. And a decent chance that my stuff will be dry by the morning. I think it’s fair to say, my dislike of camping is intense…
Intense. In tents? Oh, never mind…
The Postie’s Path
Having eventually secured the necessary string of hotels etc and then made my way back up to Ullapool, I was faced with a choice of routes on my first day of the new trip. Option A, which was very much more coastal, was the Postie’s Path, an old track used by the postman to carry mail to Achiltibuie before that village got an actual road. Option B was the aforementioned road. Well, that sounds like an easy choice, except…
The Postie’s Path is described as having sections with a sheer drop to rocks below, which are said not to be for those without a good head for heights. It is also said to require two hands for scrambling in places and to be treacherous in the rain.
Well, I have two hands, so that’s one requirement covered. How about my head for heights? That, I am forced to admit, is variable ranging on any given day between the extremes of ‘poor’ and ‘negligible’. ‘Good’ is so far off the scale as to be found on the next person’s meter. Well, okay then. What about the weather? Was it wet?
Well, water was falling liberally out of the sky. That’ll generally do it.
Taking Good Measure
Torn between feelings of stomach-churning apprehension at the thought of doing the path and soul-crushing dismay at the thought of bottling out, I canvassed local opinion from every available quarter. The responses were unanimous: on no account should I attempt the Postie’s Path in the rain. Well, that told me.
And, having been told, I stepped out into the deluge which, as if to avoid being seen to force my hand, eased off in its intensity.
I was now pretty sure I was going by the road route which, though it lacked precipitous plunges of peril, did have an additional six miles of meandering to offer. The day was going to comprise a lot of walking in the rain but at least I’d be extra glad I wasn’t camping come the end of it.
In the meantime, I turned away from the fishery barometer — many such devices were installed in fishing villages in the mid-19th century — and headed down onto Ullapool’s Shore Street to look up Loch Broom (Loch Bhraoin, ‘rain-shower loch’).
Ullapool’s name is Norse, derived from Ulla-Bolstadr, meaning ‘Ulla’s steading’. Given that the Vikings dominated the area from the 8th to the 13th centuries, this suggests that the village has been around for a while.
It experienced a transformation in 1788, when it was re-founded as a herring port by the British Fisheries Society, who employed Thomas Telford (1757-1834) to design it.
Leaving by A-Road
A road (now the A835) was constructed between Ullapool and Garve in 1792, and it was that upon which I’d entered the village. With a certain degree of symmetry, I also left Ullapool on the A835, although, when the roads were classified in 1922, the road north had originally been designated the B860. It kept that number for less than a decade however, and thus it was the A835 on which I departed Ullapool.
Strictly speaking, the road on which I began my journey out was not exactly the old B860, as Mill Street (which was) turned into North Road (which wasn’t, on account of having been built much later). But the two alignments soon recombined to cross Ullapool Bridge, which the first two editions of Ordnance Survey maps noted as wooden; today it is concrete with iron railings.
Having crossed the Ullapool River, I followed the road as it climbed out of the shallow valley.
Loch Broom & Loch Kanaird
A Pre-Telford Track
I was now on a road route that long predated Telford, being shown on William Roy’s military survey map of 1747-52. Not that it would have amounted to much more than a track then. Many subsequent improvements had turned it onto a modern, two-way metalled road and this provided a nice, solid surface underfoot even as the rain turned the land around it into a squelchy, boot-eating mess.
Ben Mor Coigach
The gentle climb topped out at 89 m before descending again to the Allt an t-Strathain (‘stream of the valley’). Ahead, Ben Mor Coigach (Beinn Mhòr na Còigich, ‘great peak of Coigach’) lurked in the mist. It was this 743 m high mountain that blocked the way to Achiltibuie, necessitating either the long road detour or a precipitous scramble round its flank.
On the far side of the Allt an t-Strathain, the first of several stretches of old road alignment were visible, the path of the A-road having been smoothed out when it was doubled (which I believe was sometime around 1980 but have been unable to corroborate).
Since I love an old road alignment, I might have been tempted to take it in preference to the new one but a fence right across it made it more effort than it was worth.
I stuck with the new road as it wound its way along to the fishing village of Ardmair (Àird Mhèar) on the shore of Loch Kanaird; its name means ‘finger promontory’.
Ardmair seemed pleasant enough, insofar as a handful of houses is enough to form an opinion about. It stares out at Isle Martin (Eilean Mhàrtainn), which is now a bird sanctuary with no permanent human residents, though a house is available to rent.
In times past, Isle Martin had more inhabitants than now, starting with a monastery at the turn of the fifth century. Much later, it was home to a herring curing station, though the foundation of Ullapool put paid to that. A flour mill subsequently occupied the site, while other residents tended crofts.
The mill’s demise came in 1948 and the crofting ended in the 1960s. Isle Martin became an RSPB bird sanctuary in 1980 before passing into the hands of a local trust in 1999.
I turned my back on Isle Martin and headed along the shore of the loch and then inland. I passed on my left the first of two turnings that could have conveyed me to the Postie’s Path.
Strath Canaird & Drumrunie
In William Roy’s day, the turn-off in question was the road although it ended at the River Runie with no mapped route onward. A half-century later, when Aaron Arrowsmith composed his 1807 map, the road continued through what he labelled as ‘South Kannahoulish’, then past ‘North Cannahoulish’, across the flank of Ben Mor and on to ‘Badenscully’ and ‘Achillibuie’.
What is now called the Postie’s Path was then the only overland route between Ullapool and Achiltibuie. It gained this name in the 1860s, when a regular postal service was established. The postman, Kenneth McLennan of Blairbuie, walked the route twice a week and was paid 2s 3d per trip.
Today, Arrowsmith’s ‘South Kannahoulish’ is Keanchulish House, part of the Ledmore & Keanchulish Estate, while the farmhouse of North Keanchulish also persists. Badenscallie is now contiguous with Achiltibuie via Polglass, which sits between them. I looked at their names on my rapidly dampening map and peered up at Ben Mor Coigach. If I was going to risk life and limb on the Postie’s path, this was my chance to decide it.
My One Rule of Walking
I decided instead to heed the advice that I had received in Ullapool. I’m clumsy, with a poor sense of balance and, as I’ve said, a terrible head for heights. Also, the rain was getting worse. It was just a risk too far. My decision made, I put away my map, and felt a rush of relief. I had, I realised, also not wanted to do it. That should have been the crux of my decision, after all, I have only one Rule of Walking and that’s that it’s Meant To Be Fun.
And so, I headed on up the road, determined to have fun by trudging the full 25 miles in the pissing rain. It’s a flexible definition, is ‘fun’.
In this case, ‘fun’ meant following the A-road across the River Canaird and past the other turn-off that could take me to the Postie’s path, just in case I wanted to change my mind (I really didn’t). With that out of the way, it led me up past the village of Strathcanaird (Srath Chainneart), which is situated along an older road alignment, swiftly bypassed by the modern A835.
A little further along, the A-road conveyed me to a viewpoint, which had theoretically been one of the potential benefits of the road route. The rain, however, had other ideas and had dialled itself up to eleven. I stood there, forming my own personal series of picturesque waterfalls, and looked out at an impenetrable wall of grey. Still, at least I wasn’t clinging to a hillside, desperately trying to spot waymarks in it.
Having damply squelched off, still determinedly seeing the silver linings in the impressively ample supply of cloud, I found that the deluge diminished. Clearly, one of us had to give up and it wasn’t going to be me. The rain wasn’t entirely defeated however, and would ambush me all afternoon with sudden and ferocious aqueous assaults but, for now, it eased off to a mere delightful drizzle.
It wasn’t quite done yet with taunting me about the view though, as the road soon passed Loch Cùl Dromannan (‘loch behind the ridges’), a small and partly tree-lined lochan in which, on good days, Ben Mor Coigach and Stac Pollaidh can be reflected beautifully. This was not one of those days.
Not long after passing the dull grey waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan, I reached the point where I would abandon the A-road. The side-road to Achiltibuie, though not in evidence on Arrowsmith’s map, had sprung into existence by the time the OS 1st Edition map of the area was published in 1876.
At this point, I had completed two fifths of the day’s mileage.
C1047 to Achiltibuie
The next ten miles or so consisted of heading west along a single-track road as it followed a long valley between the mountains. Nestling in the valley was a series of three main connected lochs, starting with the longest, the four-mile long Loch Lurgainn (‘leg loch’).
Menace in the Mist
The poor visibility largely concealed the many distinctively-shaped peaks that Coigach had to offer, such as Coich Beinn an Eoinn. However, sometimes strangely-menacing shapes swam into view out of the mist.
I continued further down Loch Lurgainn and soon the unmistakeable shape of Stac Pollaidh utterly failed to come into view.
Loch Bad a’ Ghaill
Eventually, I reached the end of Luch Lurgainn whose waters flowed, via the tiny Loch Bad na h-Achlaise (‘loch of the armpit thicket’) into Loch Bad a’ Ghaill (‘loch of the stranger’s thicket’).
At one point during my stroll alongside Loch Bad a’ Ghaill, during which the weather was having one of its spasmodic attempts to make it more like a swim, I passed a bunch of pebbles on which brightly coloured faces had been painted. This was oddly cheering, which I suspect was the intent.
An ill-advised attempt to photograph them introduced the exciting possibilities of precipitation to the inside of my camera and the result was an image of nightmarish distortion. Worse, my camera’s ability to detect light levels was completely shot until it dried out, making all picture-taking for the rest of the day something of a photographic lottery.
Loch Bad a’ Ghaill emptied into the Abhainn Osgaig, which splashed and rushed in an exciting series of whitewater rapids towards Loch Osgaig. According to my now damp-damaged camera, it did this in pitch darkness. I, however, had apparently developed incredible night vision, because I ambled along watching the white water with glee.
In doing so, I passed the isolated Badnagyle cottage and the turn-off for the old road to Lochinver. Now superseded by the A835 and A837, this older road is known to locals as the Wee Mad Road. I would be taking it the following day but, for now, I just kept on going past.
I followed the northern shore of Loch Osgaig for about a mile, which brought me to a bridge, under which the loch’s waters — now the Abhainn Garvie — rushed towards Garvie Bay and the sea. There was less than half a mile of loch left to walk past now, but the road fixed that by curving around the loch’s end to start heading south west. It was at about this time that the rain eased off again and I paused to look soggily back.
Two Small Lochans
Because suddenly giving up lochs in one go might be dangerous, the road now tried to slowly wean me off them by downgrading to passing a couple of lochans. The first was named Dubh Lochan (‘black tarn’) and the second Loch a’ Chaorainn (‘loch of the rowan’). The latter appeared to have been named more out of fantasy than fact.
Beyond the two tarns lay Achnahaird Bay, taking its name from the nearby hamlet of Achnhaird (Achadh na h-Àirde, ‘field of the promontory’). The bay is narrow with a sandy beach shading into marsh as it reaches inland.
At Achnahiard Bay the road was joined by that from Achnahaird and together we turned south. We only went two miles before hitting the coast again but that was easily enough to fit in two more small lochs (Raa and Vatachan).
Just beyond Loch Vatachan, another side-road joined us and we swung about to start heading southeast. I was now by the shores of Badentarbat Bay and I should have had a nice view of the Summer Isles (Na h-Eileanan Samhraidh). What I actually had a view of was a vast wall of grey. Still, as greys go, I guess it was a good one.
An Offer on Arrival
With little to distract me by way of visible scenery, I continued down the road and entered the village of Achiltibuie. Almost immediately, a car pulled up beside me and its occupants offered me a lift. I have no idea how I managed not to laugh.
Somehow, though, I maintained my composure and thanked them politely, explaining that having walked so far I wanted to finish under my own steam. I double-checked that my hotel was indeed a little further down the road and promptly went in search of it.
Achiltibuie was a linear village, strung out along the road. Thus, it actually was another mile before I reached the hotel, at which point being offered a lift into the village from its edge did seem somewhat less preposterous.
I was greatly surprised, upon arriving, to realise that I had done the entire 25 miles in just over eight hours without ever properly stopping for a rest. No wonder I felt utterly exhausted! Fortunately, a hot bath, some dry clothes and dinner made a significant effort to restoring me to some semblance of humanity.
And So, To Sleep
Later, I sat and mused over my maps. The forecast for the next day was for showers, but that would be a marked improvement over varying intensities of constant rain. But that would be tomorrow. In the meantime, sleep beckoned with all the subtlety, charm and general resistibility of a meteorite impact from space — the sort that kills dinosaurs; it was a hundred million megaton sleep. And I slept it.
This time: 25 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,748 miles