THE second day of my September 2019 trip continued two themes of the previous one. The first of those was distance, in that I’d have done another 26 miles by the end of it. The second was going by road instead of footpath, though I had no idea, when I set off, that that’s what I’d be doing.
Heh. As if I ever have any idea what I’m doing…
Summer Isles Hotel
As I actually planned to do fewer miles, I awoke at a civilised hour and ate a hearty breakfast before venturing outside. The rain that had plagued the previous day had continued through most of the night but I’d taken so long to get going that morning that it had got bored waiting and gone off to soak someone else, which was nice.
As I set off, I was wished well for the day by several other breakfasters, with whom I’d chatted in the hotel bar the night before. Amongst them were a couple of Dutch guys, who had been gloriously unaware of the North Coast 500 (as the coast road is known for tourism purposes), even while driving along it in this:
The absence of rain had improved visibility somewhat from ‘non-existent’ to merely ‘poor’. This had summoned the Summer Isles (Na h-Eileanan Samhraidh) into view, which had been mostly invisible the evening before.
While the isolated island of Summerisle depicted in the 1973 film The Wicker Man is fictional, its name and Hebridean location have led many to assume that it was the above island that inspired it, although the actual filming took place in Galloway.
The very real island above is Tanera Mòr (‘great Tanera’, as opposed to its neighbour — hidden behind it in the photo — which is called Tanera Beag i.e. ‘little Tanera’). In the 19th century, it was home to over a hundred people but they left in 1931. Its population since then has varied between half a dozen people and none at all.
Having been the subject of attempts to farm it since before WW2, it was sold to financier Ian Wace in 2017 at a price of £1.7 m. He is in the process of developing it into ‘an idyllic retreat’ capable of housing up to 60 paying guests, rather than the handful it has hitherto been able to handle.
I stood and looked at it for a bit, revelling in the novelty of being able to see anything at all. Clouds were lurking overhead but, for now, they chose not to veil the view behind a watery curtain. No, far more fun to lull me into a false sense of security, which is what they did; there was more than enough time for greyness and a proper drenching later…
In the meantime, I tore myself away from island-gazing and set off through Achiltibuie…
Achiltibuie (Achd Ille Bhuidhe, ‘field of the yellow-haired boy’) is a linear village that has swallowed up its neighbours Polglass (Am Poll Glas, ‘the green pool’), Badenscallie (Bad an Sgàlaidh, ‘thicket of the spectres’) and Achvraie (Achadh a’ Bhraighe, ‘field of the upper part’). I thus headed back along its one and only street, leaving it the way I had arrived.
Polbain & Dornie
About a mile from the hotel, I passed beyond its limit and found myself at the junction where a side-road branched off towards the hamlets of Polbain (Am Poll Bàn, ‘the white pool’) and Altandhu (An t-Alltan Dubh, ‘the black streamlet’). I had come into Achiltibuie on the right hand fork the evening before so now, I went left to explore the seaside delights that Polbain had to offer.
To my total lack of surprise, Polbain was tiny, consisting of just a few houses and offered very little in the way of tourist-trap amenities; that’s not what this sort of place is about at all.
Polbain did have a small pier — Badentarbat Pier — from which MV Isabella conveys people on tours around the Summer Isles three times a day between May and September. Capable of doing 27 knots, she was built in Cork and launched in 2008.
I didn’t have four hours to spare, so I briefly gazed upon the pier and Isabella from the road and then kept plodding up it. Most of Polbain sits about 60 m up the hillside so the road had a bit of a climb. This afforded me an excellent opportunity to turn around and look back at Achiltibuie across Badentarbat Bay. Behind it loomed the mountains of Coigach (A’ Chòigeach, ‘the fifths’, referring to the five townships of Achduart, Achnacarinan, Acheninver, Achnahaird and Achiltibuie).
As it left Polbain, the road curved around to the north, with a dead-end option to head off to the even tinier Dornie (An Dòrnaidh, ‘the narrow sea channel’).
Dornie, which comprises about half a dozen houses, faces onto a narrow sea channel, with Tanera Mòr just three quarters of a mile distant. Old Dornie, on the other hand, which is even smaller, faces Isle Ristol (Eilean Ruisteil) across a strait so narrow that it actually connects at low tide.
Loch a’ Mheallain
To get to Old Dornie, I would need to keep going as the road approached and then passed between two lochans – Loch a’ Mheallain (‘loch of the hillock’) and Loch Camas an Fhèidh (‘deer bay loch’). The hillock in question was the 163 m Meall Dearg (‘red hill’); meall literally means ‘lump’ and is used to denote a rounded knob or hillock.
The road curved around Loch a’ Mheallain as expected and crossed the small stream linking the lochs. This road can be seen in the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey map for the area (published 1906) but its 1st Edition counterpart (published 1881) showed a track passing the loch to the left, not the right. Roughly where the two alignments crossed, a side-road branched off to Old Dornie.
Old Dornie comprises a couple of houses and a bay lined with boats. There is also a pier, from which MV Patricia conveys holidaymakers who have booked a stay on Tanera Mòr.
Neither of these things were of much use or interest to me, so I merely noted the turn-off and then walked straight past it. Well, I say ‘straight’; the road actually curved past Loch Camas an Fhèidh before conveying me into the hamlet of Altandhu, the largest settlement on this road.
Altandhu & Achnahaird
Altandhu is large enough to have a bar — Am Fuaran (‘the well’) — but it was way too early for alcohol. Opposite the bar, a sign pointed down a steepish slope to a campsite which, it said, had a shop. The sign was not lying and I cheerfully purchased a cold drink in the shop, after hesitating so long over whether I should or should not buy chocolate that the lady at the till felt the need to ask if I needed help.
My reverie of indecision broken, we had a quick chat about walking, weather and onward routes and she added retrospectively to the chorus of voices that agreed that the Postie’s Path between Ullapool and Achiltibuie was Not To Be Done In the Rain. She also informed me of the local name for the road to Lochinver, which I planned to walk later: the ‘Wee Mad Road’. I liked that.
Clutching my cold drink, but not guzzling it yet, I ambled through the rest of Altandhu. On its far side, just past a turn-off to the isolated hamlet of Reiff (An Rif, ‘the reef’) the road climbed from 30 m elevation to about 90 m. There, by the roadside stood a rocky crag — Cnoc Breac (‘speckled hill’) — that doubled as a viewpoint and it was there that I sat and drank my drink, gazing out over Altandhu, Old Dornie and the Summer Isles.
Lochans & Mountains
From the viewpoint, the road struck out west across open moorland, mostly but not quite always following the alignment of a bridle road on the 2nd edition OS map (there was no track at all on the 1st edition). This was liberally dotted with lochans and sheep and set against a backdrop of mountains.
Now straight, but not boring, the road conveyed me to Achnahaird (Achadh na h-Àirde, ‘field by the headland’), the fifth of Coigach’s five townships.
Achanahaird was quite small, comprising a series of houses on the road’s left-hand side (from my perspective). A side-road was signposted for the beach but I kept to the road I was already on. That passed by the top end of Achnahaird Bay, where the sandy beach gave way to salt marsh.
Returning to Badnagyle
Just past the bay and about a mile from Achnahaird, the loop road that I’d been following all morning met back up with the road into Achiltibuie. From there, I would be retracing my steps from the evening before, at least for a while. The main difference was that, with the rain holding off, I could actually see (for example) what lay on the far side of Loch Osgaig.
As I crossed the bridge over the Abhainn Garvie, the weather decided that it had played nicely for long enough and the first few spots of drizzle fell upon my face. Grim, grey conditions swept in from the southeast, swallowing the mountains I’d seen just moments before. With my hood pulled up, I strode determinedly into the rain, following the road along Loch Osgaig’s northern shore.
After a while, the road climbed slightly and the loch ended, so that I was walking parallel to the Abhainn Osgaig that feeds it. This soon brought me to the isolated cottage of Badnagyle and the junction where the Wee Mad Road began.
Wee Mad Road
Druim Bad a’ Ghaill
The Wee Mad Road started by climbing to 132 m in order to cross the Druim Bad a’ Ghaill (‘ridge of the stranger’s thicket’). This would have commended some excellent views had I been there an hour earlier but I made the most of it anyway, choosing to regard the vague and misty mountains as romantically veiled rather than annoyingly obscured.
On the far side of the ridge, the road began a winding but gentle descent towards the River Polly (Abhainn Phollaidh, ‘river of pools’ from Norse Pollå).
The rain, which had apparently just wanted to ruin any views from Druim Bad a’ Ghaill, ceased again and I found a spot where I could perch on a damp rock and rest. From it, I gazed out onto the River Polly with Stac Pollaidh looming in the background.
Rested and refreshed, I continued down to the River Polly, where I had a choice of old and new bridges on which to cross (I chose the latter, which turned out to be muddy as all hell).
The Old Track
A fish farm sat beside the bridge but I was more interested in my choice of routes onwards. To the left, a private road led off towards Inverpolly Lodge, while to the right, the Wee Mad Road continued with a steep climb through woodland. It had been my intention to turn left, so that I could pick up a footpath at the end of the Inverpolly Lodge road and I saw no reason to change my mind now. So, left I went…
The 9-bedroom Inverpolly Lodge is owned by the Inverpolly Estate, as is Badnagyle cottage; both are let out as holiday accommodation. The road to it was pleasant enough and metalled to serve the holiday-makers vehicles. There were clear signs that cattle could be found wandering it at times but they were nowhere in sight, so either they were elsewhere or Inverpolly has mastered the secret of bovine invisibility.
I reached the end of the road unmolested by invisible animals, and there switched to a track.
Before the Wee Mad Road
In 1881, when the OS was publishing its 1st edition, the Wee Mad Road didn’t exist yet and the route north was a track running closer to the coast and crossing the Polly on a footbridge. South of the river, the latter track seems to have gone now, but it still runs north from Inverpolly Lodge to Lochan Sàl and from there becomes a footpath, following the old track to Loch an Èisg Brachaidh.
The rain resumed, lightly spitting, as I reached Lochan Sàl. There, a dam separated the lochan from the sea and the old route continued straight across it as a footpath.
The dam looks pretty easy to hop across and probably is if you’re not me. My sense of balance is shockingly poor and the grass and moss on top of it was slick with the rain. Thus, when I stepped onto it, I found myself feeling pretty unstable as I inched my way along it. Maybe I’d have felt a lot better about it if it was dry, but it wasn’t and the water rushing through the centre was gushing with some force on account of all the recent rain.
As I got closer, that gap was starting to look slightly wider than I could just hop across without effort, and more like the sort of gap that needs a bold step followed by having enough balance to not slip over in the wet. It was at this point that my brain decided to point out that the far end of the path involved stepping stones and that every stream I had seen so far had been in spate.
To my shame, I got about halfway along the dam, decided that it was in no way fitting with my definition of fun and noped out of there, backtracking all the way to the Wee Mad Road. In doing so, I added several miles and a steep climb to the day’s walking but I knew that I could handle that, whereas not falling into Lochan Sàl had been a great deal less certain.
Wee Mad Road (Again)
The Wee Mad Road climbed, winding and wooded, for about a mile before breaking out of the trees and into a landscape of craggy tors, open moorland and lochans.
As it progressed, the Wee Mad Road became tree-lined again so that I only caught glimpses of the sizeable lochs Call an Uidhean and Buine Mòire.
From a summit of 105 m, the Wee Mad Road made a winding journey along the latter’s western shore before taking a hard left turn to descend into a wooded glen.
Allt Gleann an t-Strathain
Before long, the glen itself made a right-hand turn and the road had little choice but to follow suit, running alongside the gurgling Allt Gleann an t-Srathain, whose name means ‘stream of the glen of the little valley’, which seems a tad redundant. Although it still makes more sense than Loch an Èisg-Brachaidh, into which it empties. I can’t find an official translation but èisg means ‘of fish’ and brachaidh means ‘malt’, so I’m not sure quite what that’s supposed to mean.
In any event, it had little islands in it and was, I thought, rather pretty.
For the next three quarters of a mile, the road undulated around the edge of the loch, for the most part separated from its shore by just a low stone wall. It was marvellous. Sadly, it couldn’t last, and the road soon turned inland, climbing through another wooded stretch to break out into open moor just as the sky launched a serious deluge.
Hood up, I splashed, squelched and dripped my way past Loch an Arbhair (‘loch of the corn’) before the road dropped down again to cross the River Kirkaig. I had hoped to rest at the bottom but of course, since it was raining hard, every available surface on which to sit was a-swim with water.
I may not have been able to sit down for the moment but I gave a weak cheer on crossing the Kirkaig anyway, for it meant that I had just left Ross-shire and entered Sutherland.
This county’s name literally means what it looks like, i.e. ‘southern land’, which at first glance seems an odd choice for one the northernmost parts of mainland Scotland. The reason, of course, is that it wasn’t part of Scotland when it was named that but part of Norway’s dominions, from whose perspective naming it Suðrland made rather more sense.
I was quite glad to have reached it; though I had been there before, that was forty-two years earlier, when I was only seven.
I could see A’ Chleit because the road was now returning me to the coast, where I found the village of Inverkirkaig (Inbhir Chircaig, ‘Kirkaig river mouth’, where ‘kirkaig’ comes from the Norse kirkju-vik meaning ‘church bay’).
With the rain having stopped, I took a short break in Inverkirkaig but not too long — I was now on the final stretch and hoped to reach my hotel before the kitchen closed.
Badnaban & Strathan
From Inverkirkaig, the road cut inland again, climbing to about 50 m before skimming the edge of the hamlet of Badnaban (‘women’s thicket’) and then passing through Strathan (‘little valley’). The sun was setting at this point and I was entering into the familiar game of trying to get to my hotel before the usable twilight failed.
I raced along the road as it wound along the western shore of Loch Culag and crossed the Culag River that drains from it. The river was a veritable torrent as I crossed it, swollen by the recent rain. With exquisite timing, the road dropped me into Lochinver (Loch an Inbhir, ‘loch of the river mouth’) with just enough light to spot the sign for my hotel.
Lochinver’s Two Hotels
The largest settlement on Scotland’s west coast north of Ullapool, Lochinver boasts multiple shops, a post office, a petrol station and two sizeable hotels. That’s pretty good going in the northwest Highlands.
Of the two hotels, the Culag Hotel is the most physically imposing, being housed in an 1873 shooting lodge built in glorious Scottish baronial style. I, however, was staying in the Inver Lodge Hotel, which sounds like it should have been a Victorian shooting lodge but was actually purpose-built, opening in 1988. Resolutely low-rise, it is less impressive to look at but that was a deliberate choice so as not to disrupt the skyline; it sits high above Lochinver, commanding excellent views.
So far, so lovely, but that meant that getting involved in one final, torchlit, gruelling climb up its steep driveway, which never seemed to end.
Inver Lodge Hotel
I eventually staggered through the hotel’s doorway to receive mixed news. I had, sadly, just missed the restaurant but they scrambled to feed me anyway with an excellent bar meal of bangers and mash. It wasn’t haute cuisine but it was food, and as by then I’d been resigned to just eating a packet of cashews stowed in my bag, I was overjoyed beyond words.
I was further overjoyed to learn that I had received an unexpected upgrade and now had a room that may have been larger than my entire London flat.
All in all, the helpfulness of the hotel’s staff could not be overstated. Admittedly, it’s a four-star hotel and was one of the most expensive stays of that trip, but if there’s one lesson I’ve learned about accommodation in my wanderings it’s that prices and star ratings mean bugger all. The Inver Lodge exceeded all expectations and, in their case, I think the cost was money well spent.
That night I slept well, having unexpectedly done over fifty miles in two days. Come morning, I’d be merrily doing some more…
This time: 26 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,774 miles