THE first question on day five of my September 2019 trip was ‘is it still raining’? The answer was ‘ish’. The second question was would the day begin by heading off-road along a footpath, or would I once again be treading the tarmac? A strong indicator as to which this would be occurred when my hotelier asked me my plans for the day…
Full of early morning optimism and a fortifying breakfast, I explained that I intended to follow the old church path to the nearby hamlet of Tarbet (An Tairbeart, ‘the isthmus’). Tarbet, being a hamlet — or, in Scottish terms, a clachan — had no church of its own, so its inhabitants had formerly used the path to attend church in Scourie (Sgobhairigh, ‘shed shieling’). I was quite looking forward to it.
I don’t mind a bit of road walking — I don’t even mind a lot of road walking — but, so far, this trip had been almost all road walking, even when I’d intended that it wouldn’t. It would be good to get off the tarmac and onto a mere track, I thought.
The hotelier made a face.
The track, he said, was only ‘sort of’ a track. It was there in places but not so much in others. It was also boggy as hell, even when there hadn’t been a week of rain. Which there had. It would, he opined, be awful. Also, he asked, did I have a compass? As it happened, I did. Also, I was expecting the path to be boggy and indistinct.
The hotelier seemed faintly amused; my anticipation of bogginess was apparently wanting in extremity. I took his advice on board, which was to forget the path and go by road, part of which he described as ‘a lovely walk’. I took it on board and dismissed it, I had my heart set on doing some actual footpath. Okay, some nominal footpath. Anyway…
Scourie Shop & Post Office
I stocked up on snacks and water in Scourie’s shop, where I decided to canvass a second opinion on whether or not I should attempt the path. Mrs Shop Lady also made a face.
‘There is a path,’ she told me, with a tone and emphasis that suggested there effectively wasn’t, ‘but no one uses it. I wouldn’t; not in these conditions’.
Hmm. Two for two.
I decided not to seek a third opinion, as I had already heard enough. Heard enough to ignore it, that is.
I entirely accepted that they were probably right, but if I was not exactly keen to go bog-squelching, I was at least open to the idea. And the weather, as if to encourage me, had now ceased its intermittent drizzle. I would, I decided, go and see how bad the ground conditions looked. But first, I wandered back down the harbour to try to get a better photo.
My camera, siding with the locals, decided that it wanted no part in my foolishness and stubbornly refused to function. Its battery had totally died in the night. Fortunately, I still had my phone and actual telephony is an afterthought with modern devices.
The Church Path
A path from the harbour led me to start of the church path proper. It became immediately clear that even the patch of grass this traversed had ambitions to be altogether runnier. I squelched along it until it joined a road that led me to a gate on which hung a sign saying ‘cattle farm — beware of the bulls!’ Oh goody. The question now, was were there any bulls? I looked past the gate.
Several beefy bovine boys looked back at me.
The bullocks and I looked at each other for some moments. They were in the ‘awkward teen’ stage and seemed like they weren’t sure exactly what they ought to do if I entered their field but, whatever that was, the prospect was certainly exciting. I wasn’t sure what they might do, either.
I don’t generally have an issue with cattle — a little bit of reading their body language and understanding their psychology goes a long way — but these boys were positively frisky.
There was, I realised, a good chance they just hoped I was bringing something extra yummy. There was also a good chance that they were hormonal timebombs, ready to experiment with being territorial about their field.
On any other day, I’d probably have brazened it out, but not this one. I had already been warned twice not to take the path and these livestock lads were offering that third opinion I’d not sought. Also, the rain resumed, just to top up the path’s bogginess.
Bowing to the Inevitable
‘All right, all right,’ I said, more to the universe in general than to the cattle. Their ears twitched excitedly anyway. ‘I get the bloody message. I’ll go by road.’
And so I did. At least it had the virtue of consistency with the four preceding days.
I backtracked up the lane until I emerged in Scourie near the hotel. This establishment began as a coaching inn in the 1840s but the building it occupied was older.
It started out as a fortified house built by the Mackays (who were lairds of Scourie) in the late 16th century. During this phase of its existence, it was the birthplace of Gen Hugh Mackay (1640-1692), who became Commander-in-Chief of the army in Scotland under William and Mary in 1689 and later died fighting in the Nine Years War. In 1829, Lord Reay — the hereditary chief of Clan Mackay — sold the estate to the Marquess of Stafford.
In 1833, the marquess, who was married to the Countess of Sutherland, was elevated to become the Duke of Sutherland and then promptly died. It was his son and heir who enlarged and converted the house into an inn, which he called the Stafford Arms because he could.
The new duke (and marquess) built his wife a home, Scourie Lodge, which overlooked both the harbour and that muddy path I’d walked earlier. The duchess wasn’t keen though, preferring to live in the main family home, Dunrobin Castle. And who can blame her?
The lodge became the home of their factor, Evander MacIver, who lived there from 1845 until his death in 1903. Though not as notorious as other Sutherland factors — the Sutherland Clearances had largely happened by the time he was appointed — MacIver was very unpopular with the locals, as a man who collected rents and held power over their lives might well be. He had powerful friends though, and liberal prime minister William Ewart Gladstone visited him several times for holidays.
Today, Scourie Lodge is a B&B.
Evander MacIver apparently believed in the Sutherland Clearances, even if he was too late to take part. While they were driven by economic concerns, replacing poor crofters with more valuable sheep, they weren’t entirely cynical in that some (though not all) taking part believed that they were forcing the crofters to seek a ‘better’ life elsewhere.
Some 15,000 people were evicted from Sutherland crofts, their houses burnt to prevent re-occupation. The effect of this can be seen by comparing old maps. William Roy’s military survey map of 1747-52 shows three scattered settlements forming Scourie. The modern village occupies the location of the southernmost of these, with the two other farmsteads now showing little evidence on the ground.
Land Without Roads
One thing that Roy’s map didn’t show was any sign of roads, not just around Scourie but in Sutherland at all.
I had read that Sutherland had no roads before 1807 although, in that case, English cartographer Aaron Arrowsmith (1750-1823) must have been absolutely bang up to date with his 1807 map, as that clearly shows a road heading east. The explanation, I think, lies in what one considers to constitute a ‘road’.
Most of Sutherland’s roads were constructed in the 1820s and ’30s, when the then-Marquess of Stafford took advantage of the Highland Road and Bridges (Scotland) Act 1810, under authority of which, the government would meet half the expenses of building roads in the Highlands of Scotland, as long as the landowner paid the other half.
This was an absolute bargain and allowed Stafford to convert boggy footpaths and pony tracks into roads built to the standards of Thomas Telford (1757-1834), engineer to the Highland Roads & Bridges Commission.
Alignments New & Old
Such roads often followed the alignment of earlier tracks, if they existed, but not always. It is this that probably explains why Arrowsmith shows a ‘road’ heading east from Scourie Bay, past Loch a’ Bhadaidh Daraich and then across what is now trackless moorland to pass south of Ben Stack to reach the hamlet of Achfary.
Stafford’s road-building took a different route, passing north of Ben Stack from Achfary to Laxford Bridge (itself built as part of the same programme) with another road from the bridge to Scourie. It is this later road alignment that shows up on the relevant 1st Edition Ordnance Survey maps (published 1878) and which is followed by modern A-roads.
Of Arrowsmith’s Scourie-Achfary route there is no sign at the Scourie end, while a track at the Achfary end goes only so far before petering out.
Laxford Bridge Road
Loch a’ Bhadaidh Daraich
I love an old road but one that no longer exists at all was too challenging, not to mention heading in quite the wrong direction. I therefore stuck with the modern A894 as it, with a little curve-smoothing, followed Stafford’s route bearing northeast. At the very start, though, both routes were the same because Loch a’ Bhadaidh Daraich (‘loch of the oak spinney’) needed going around and not through.
Once past the loch, the A894 curved left and gained height, flanked by more evidence of modern alignment-easing. It carried me past Lochan Dubh a’ Bhreac Leathaid (‘black tarn of the speckled hillside’), which looked more like a dull grey. The weather, as if sensing my disappointment, finally decided to give up on the intermittent raining thing, and the rest of my day, though mostly overcast, was precipitation-free.
Loch a’ Bhàgh Ghainmhich
A little further on, about three miles from Scourie, I reached the shore of Loch a’ Bhàgh Ghainmhich, which means ‘loch of the sandy bay’ despite it being a mile and a half from the nearest seashore and not remotely near a beach that wasn’t shingle.
Confusing as its name was, to me the loch was merely the place where I had to leave the A-road, taking a minor side-road — officially the C1123 — westwards towards Tarbet.
Tarbet & Foindle Loop
Beware of the Bull
A sign beside a cattle grid warned me to ‘beware of the bull’, which dismayed me on two counts. Firstly, I didn’t want to encounter a bull. And, secondly, if I were to do that, it completely invalidated my decision to turn back from the bullocks on the church path.
I saw no bull.
Loch nam Brac
For the first mile, the single-track side-road passed through a valley, initially running beside a stream and then passing the diminutive Loch a’ Phreasain Challtuinne (‘loch of the small hazel bush’). Thereafter, it forked, with the unclassified left-hand fork (Tarbet Jetty Road) leaving the C1123 and dropping down to run beside the irregularly-shaped Loch nam Brac (‘loch of the deer’).
It was at about this point, as the sky began to brighten and the road snaked its way along the loch side more-or-less at water level, that the hotelier’s promise that this walk would be ‘lovely’ began to be realised in earnest. It was beautiful. The road was quiet, with a car or motorbike only rarely (and one enormous motorhome that barely made it through a passing place; God knows how he’d navigated the rest of the road).
I stayed by the waterside for about another mile until, leaving the loch behind, the road began to climb steeply. I powered up the incline, pausing at the top to see tiny Loch Dubh (‘black loch’) on the far side, and two of the houses of Tarbet perched above it.
The descent into Tarbet was slow and deliberate but that says more about my fear of doing in my knee than anything else. At the bottom sat the aforementioned Loch Dubh and slightly more than a handful of cottages. Two handfuls, maybe, though not all were intact and occupied.
Port of Tarbet
At this point, I had walked about seven and a half miles, including the abortive amble to and from the start of the church path. That being so, I was ready for a rest and thus I wandered to the church path’s end, a gravelly beach facing onto the bay called Port of Tarbet, which looked out over the Sound of Handa. There, I had been told, I could find a seafood restaurant, which would be an ideal place to stop for a break.
It would have been, too, had it been open.
On any other day, the Shorehouse apparently would have been open but I chose a day when a note on the door apologetically announced that it would be shut for a few days. Thwarted, I plonked myself down by the beach and consoled myself with some snacks I’d purchased back in Scourie.
A party of glum-looking Germans were doing something similar; I suspect they had been hoping to enjoy Tarbet’s other main attraction — the ferry to Handa Island — but that was likewise out of action, in its case due to forecast high winds (not that they were actually in evidence). Judging from their expressions, the Germans had been really looking forward to it.
Today, Handa Island (Eilean Shannda) is a wildlife reserve though it used to be inhabited: Up until the mid-19th century, it supported a community of sixty-odd people, who used to call their eldest widow ‘Queen of Handa’. This tradition, and indeed all their others, came to an end with the Highland Potato Famine of 1848, which forced many Scots to emigrate, exacerbating the effect of the clearances. In Handa’s case, everyone left, emigrating to Nova Scotia, and no one has lived on Handa since.
Interestingly, Handa’s name is gaelicised Norse and means ‘the island in the sandy river.’ Once again, that’s a reference to sand where none was in evidence, so maybe Tarbet is sandier at low tide? Or maybe it once used to be?
Saying ‘No’ to Negativity
I had arrived in Tarbet in good spirits, buoyed up sufficiently by the walk around Loch nam Brac, that the closure of the Shorehouse had barely made a dent.
The awful crushing disappointment of the Germans was so great, however, that it was leaching joy out of their surroundings at a distance and I could almost feel its cold tendrils seeking to ensnare me. Seeing their pain, I was moved by their plight. Specifically, I was moved out of Tarbet and away from their spreading negativity as I basically ran away. It seemed like a plan.
Well, I say ‘ran’, I still had to go up that incline, remember? Fortunately, it was as short as it was steep and, after I had done it, the road rewarded me by leading me on to Loch Gobhloch, where some more loveliness awaited.
The road ran beside the loch until it ran out of water (it was only a small loch), at which point it was in danger of letting the loveliness lapse. Well, it couldn’t have that, such behaviour would be lax…
Nestling on the shore of Loch Laxford (Loch Lusart) was the tiny hamlet of Fanagmore (An Fheannag Mhòr, ‘the big crow’), one house of which is visible in the photo above. The big lump directly opposite is Eilean Àrd (‘high island’), which seems a reasonable name for an island that, though small, reaches 71 m in height.
Loch Laxford’s names in both English and Gaelic are corruptions of Old Norse lax-fjörðr, meaning ‘salmon fjord’. Fish was an important food source for Highland coastal communities, so it’s slightly surprising that Handa’s inhabitants, for instance, were hit quite so hard by the potato blight. Although, fish without chips is something of a disaster…
Although I had an appointment with Loch Laxford later, I wasn’t quite ready to meet it yet so, instead of continuing into Fanagmore, I took a hard right and followed another road out (the C1123 again).
Even so, Loch Laxford remained an intermittent presence on my left as I followed a delightfully undulating road past numerous small lochans to the vicinity of Foindle (An Fhionndail, ‘the white meadow’), which was another hamlet, just slightly larger than Tarbet.
From Foindle, the road snaked out over moorland, rounded a hillock and kissed the edge of Clàr Loch (‘loch of the flat place’). Just past the loch, I saw some evidence of road realignment, smoothing out a curve, which surprised me on so minor and remote a road.
Returning to the A-Road
Straightened-out or otherwise, the road was still continuing to live up to the promise that it would be lovely; unfortunately, I knew I hadn’t much of it left. Sure enough, it quickly dropped down to the junction where I’d previously forked left to Tarbet.
It was severely tempting to do the circuit again but I knew I had to press on — going by road instead of church path had added three miles to my day. Thus, with a sigh, I again took the left turn, to pass Loch a’ Phreasain Challtuinne and return to the A894.
Again, I saw no bull.
Laxford Bridge Road (Again)
Having curved around Loch a’ Bhàgh Ghainmhich, the A-road resumed its former alignment, heading northeast. I passed the isolated farmhouse of Claisfearn (‘alder gully’), which meant that somewhere on my right, not visible from the road, was a prehistoric burnt mound (a mound of shattered stones and charcoal, generally assumed to be discarded cooking stones).
A little further on, I spotted some stones from a later time period, whose purpose was easy to discern.
Claisfearn Old Bridge
Standing beside its modern replacement, mossy and rather forlorn, this single-track bridge is of appropriate style to date back to the building of the road sometime around 1830. As such, it will have been half paid for by the Marquess of Stafford and half by government, and built to Telford’s standards under the supervision of Joseph Mitchell (1803-1883), the Inspector of Highland Roads and Bridges.
I’m not certain exactly when this venerable bridge was retired, but the 1970s or ’80s seems most likely.
Loch na Claise Feàrna
Still heading northeast, the road passed Loch na Claise Feàrna (‘alder gully loch’), with some more late 20th-century straightening in evidence. It then curved around to the right until it was heading southeast, broadly in parallel with Loch Laxford.
Up ahead, I saw a bay cut in from the loch — Tràigh Bad na Bàigh (‘beach of the thicket at the bay’) — And the hamlet of Badnabay (Bad na Bàigh).
Badnabay has been bypassed, with the modern A-road cutting between it and the beach on a short causeway and bridge. The original alignment of the road veered off to run right through it, crossing the Allt Bad na Bàig on a bridge that’s the twin of Claisfearn’s.
From Badnabay, the A-road continued southeast until it reached the end of Laxford Bay (itself the end of Loch Laxford). There, it swung left to head north to Laxford Bridge.
Extensive realignment was obvious all along this section, culminating in a junction with the A838, where the layout and priority had clearly been massively altered. The road on the far side of the bridge had also been altered, having been widened and improved in 2013. But between the two sections, still one-lane wide, was the original Laxford Bridge (Drochaid Lusart), constructed in 1834 as part of Stafford’s road-building programme.
While the actual bridge is a bit narrow to sit on without getting your legs amputated at the knee by a passing caravan, the crash barrier on its approach was good to perch on for a brief rest. While resting, I contemplated the view upstream; the River Laxford meanders down from Loch Stack.
Laxford Bridge’s survival is not without some efforts to the contrary on the part of the British Army.
In 2009, two members of 29 Commando, Royal Artillery, were so disappointed that the river lacked a ford that they decided to drive off into it anyway. Well, maybe not, but they did manage to drive their 15 tonne flatbed truck — which was carrying a mechanical digger at the time — through the bridge’s parapet to end up on its side in the river. Luckily for them, they escaped with cuts and bruises.
The bridge was not so lucky but, since closing it would cause require traffic to make huge detours, it was reopened the next day with temporary barriers in place. The damage was fixed within the month.
Not having an army lorry to protect me, I chose not dive over the side but simply walked across.
A838 Tongue Road
North of the river, the recently-improved road was broad and well-surfaced as it swung west along Laxford Bay to a lonely quay and mid-19th century warehouse at Badcall (‘hazel clump’).
The namebook for the OS 1st edition — in which they recorded the names of places being mapped — noted that it had formerly been a hamlet but was (by 1878) ‘extinct’.
Creag a’ Bhaid Choil
The road swung north, rounding Creag a’ Bhaid Choill (‘hazel clump crag’), a 130 m hill.
From this point onwards, there were frequent signs of road-widening and straightening with dead-straight sections, cuttings and ox-bow loops of old road. The latter were sadly not suitable to walk on, being mostly overgrown and in some places, abruptly severed by the cuttings. Nonetheless, they made what might have otherwise been a dull stretch far more interesting. Well, to me, at least. I doubt anyone one else would care all that much.
The cuttings were also rather fascinating, as they exposed sheets of coarse pink granite surrounded by grey gneiss. If nothing else, they were pretty.
Loch na Fiacail
The A838, which I was now on, passed Loch na Fiacail (‘tooth loch’) and kept climbing, gently ascending to a summit at 62 m. Thereafter, it dropped down to Loch na Thull where I finally found a section of old road I could take.
While the new road alignment cut across the loch on an embankment made out of the material extracted from the cuttings, the old had gone around it, now serving as the turn-off for Skerricha (Sgeir a’ Chadha, ‘the skerry at the pass’).
It wasn’t much of a detour — about a mile in total — but I thoroughly enjoyed it as the single-track road wound around the back of Creag an Fhraoich (‘heather crag’) and then converged on the new alignment after passing along an opposite bank of Loch an Thull.
All too soon, it ended and I was back on the A-road, taking note of more old road sections that were too overgrown or dead ends.
After a second low summit at 43 m, the road dropped down to Rhiconich (An Ruigh Còinnich, ‘the mossy slope’), at the head of Loch Inchard (Loch Innse Àird, ‘loch of the high meadow’).
Rhiconich is a tiny hamlet dominated by the Rhiconich Hotel, although it also possesses a police station. The latter is manned by one constable who polices an area of 900 square miles. Bizarrely, it is the police station that is marked as the hotel on older maps, having been established as the Stafford Arms Inn (of course) by the Duke of Sutherland in the 1850s.
The current hotel sits on another little curve of old road alignment, which is equipped with a bridge in the same 1830s style as that at Claisfearn and Laxford.
I was booked into the Rhiconich Hotel, so my arrival there meant it was time to get clean and changed and enjoy a nice cup of tea. Dinner and drinks followed and some interesting conversations in the hotel bar. That night, I retired to bed with my map and a question — what should I do about Cape Wrath? I’ll let you know how that turned out…
This time: 20½ miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,833 miles