FOLLOWING a day spent idling lazily in Durness (thanks to my plans re Cape Wrath coming to naught), the first Sunday of October 2019 saw me up and about bright and early. Well, early, at least. It wasn’t actually all that bright, being grey and overcast. But while brightness was elusive, earliness was unavoidable; I had a long day of walking ahead of me…
Signs and Portents
Actually, strictly speaking, that’s still not right. It being October, the days were no longer as long as all that, which was a major component in my decision to start early: with the mileage I had planned, stuffing it into the available day was going to be a tight fit. I was walking to Tongue (Tunga):
While the A838 road signage was keen to tell me how far it was to my destination, the local facility signage seemed keen to distract me from going there. Except, as it turned out, the shops and cafés, pubs and restaurants all offered very little impedance as it was Sunday morning and they were all shut.
As lovely as Sango Sands seemed to be, it was no place to hang about on an October Sunday morning and especially one where the sky seemed determined to ignore the name of the day. A chill wind threatened to freeze me solid as I stood there, turning me into another rock for the beach.
Durness Millennium Cairn
The A-road looped away at this point in a long, winding curve, gaining height to climb onto the headland shown in the photo above. A minor road (the C1090) cut the corner, however, and it was this that I took, climbing more directly and steeply. At the top, I regained the A838 and found myself menaced by a terrifying dry stone construction:
On second glance, this pepperpot shape proved to be the Durness Millennium Cairn, transported from the staggeringly futuristic time period of 2000 AD. As such, it was no stone-cold killer and I quickly escaped from its vicinity to a part of Durness called Smoo.
This strange name comes from the Old Norse smúga, meaning ‘hiding place’ and specifically applies to Smoo Cave, in which you could definitely hide things.
Things hidden in Smoo Cave would want to be pretty waterproof as its inner chambers are flooded, having been formed by the action of a small, fast-flowing stream, the Allt Smoo; this plunges into the caves from above, dropping down a waterfall into a sinkhole.
The outer chamber, by contrast, was formed as a sea cave and this makes Smoo Cave unique within the UK: all other British caves were formed by one of those processes or the other — either freshwater erosion or wave action — whereas Smoo Cave is a two-in-one affair.
While Smoo Cave looks like a screamingly obvious place in which to hide things, it has been used for nefarious purposes. What the above photo doesn’t show is that it’s at the end of a narrow inlet — a tidal gorge named Geodha Smoo — and thus pretty much invisible from a ship off the coast.
Smoo Cave was also traditionally said to be the abode of the Devil, which is just the sort of story you’d spread if you wanted ‘honest god-fearing folk’ to keep the hell away. This made it a perfect spot for the area’s most feared highwayman, assassin and general thug, Domhnull MacMhurchaidh, to dump the bodies of his victims. Also known by the anglicised name Donald McMurdo, he was a henchman of local landowner Sir Donald Mackay of Farr, 14th chief of the Clan Mackay.
McMurdo is said to have murdered at least eighteen people, disposing of their mortal remains by dropping them into the sinkhole through which the Allt Smoo plunges, confident that anyone who might find them in Smoo Cave would be themselves up to no good and/or said to be in league with the Devil just for being there.
Excise Men Murdered
If the top of the fall was good for disposing of bodies, the bottom of it turned out to be good for creating two more. About half a century after McMurdo’s escapades, two excise men searched the cave for an illicit still they believed to be concealed there. Since the inner caves are flooded, they procured the services of a local boatman, Donald Mackay (a not uncommon name in those parts), who duly rowed into the caves.
Unfortunately for the excise men, Mackay was in on it and not about to lead them to the still. Even more unfortunately, the Allt Smoo was in full spate and the force of the waterfall visibly unnerved them as the small boat approached. And, adding a final dollop of misfortune like the icing on the cake, Mackay was a strong swimmer, whereas they were not. Thus, he rowed his boat right up to the waterfall and allowed it to capsize, swimming clear while they drowned.
The story is that only one of the two bodies was ever recovered, with the ghost of the second exciseman said to haunt the cave whenever the stream is high.
Sheepdogs Are So Last Season
I left the cave behind me and climbed back up the steps to the road. There, I came face to face with some sheep that had strayed across it. They eyed me incuriously, not caring much about my presence and, moments later, I learned why they were so brave. A car drove up and came to a rolling almost-stop that one might have expected to scatter them. Instead, they merely trotted down the road a little, their movements positively radiating huffy resignation.
‘Oh, do we have to move?’ they seemed to say.
The car followed them, repeating this manoeuvre, and I wondered if this was a familiar thing to local drivers. Possibly it is, but it quickly transpired that this driver knew exactly what he was doing, as he used his car to carefully herd the sheep back up their farm track. He was, I surmised, their owner and had clearly mastered the art of rounding up sheep using only a motor car. I was mildly impressed.
Moving on, I made my way through the parts of Durness that go by the names Leirinmore (Leirinmhòr) and Sangobeg (Sangobeag).
The A-road was close to a bay at this point and offshore I saw the islet of Eilean Hoan (‘haven island’), a tiny, low-lying speck that today is a nature reserve. Up until the early 19th century, it was inhabited — albeit by only one croft — but the house had already been reduced to ruins by the time the Ordnance Survey were drawing up their 1st Edition map in 1874.
I don’t know if Eilean Hoan was abandoned because living on it was just too difficult or because it got cleared but a short distance down the road I came to a place that had definitely undergone the latter. This was Ceannabeinne (‘end of the mountains’), once a thriving township of fourteen houses, which in early 1841 were home to fifty people. Thus far, they’d been lucky and had avoided the Highland Clearances but their luck was about to change horribly…
Their landlord was a man James Anderson (1776-1854), who leased the Rispond Estate from the Duke of Sutherland. He had had great plans to make money through herring fishing but that had failed and now he turned to sheep-farming as a means of rebuilding his finances. This was a plan that required lots of sheep on his lands but no tenants and so he went to court and obtained orders for their removal.
Thus, on a Saturday morning in September 1841, the inhabitants of Ceannabeinne got an unpleasant surprise — a sheriff’s officer by the name of Campbell reading out their eviction notices. They were given just 48 hours to pack up their wholes lives and go. They were not keen on this idea.
The Durness Riots
The inhabitants of Ceannabeinne may have had no legal grounds whatsoever to object but that hardly stopped them from objecting. Also, they outnumbered Campbell by a wide margin. They grabbed him and relieved him of his papers, which they promptly set fire to before sending him on his way.
So far, so good, but setting fire to a court order doesn’t free you from having to obey it. Further conflict between the villagers and the authorities was inevitable; the Durness Riots had begun…
Campbell’s first move was to go to the police, returning with Superintendent Philip Mackay. This did not go as planned; Mackay received exactly the same treatment and once again the papers were burnt.
Mackay tried twice again to enforce the law, ending with his interception near Smoo and an attempt by the villagers to throw him off the cliff above Smoo Cave (they failed).
Supt Mackay remained determined to do his duty, however, just as the villagers were determined not to be evicted, and so they gathered their forces. Mackay assembled a force of fourteen special constables in the Durine Inn, a hostelry in the south of Durness.
The residents of Ceannabeinne, however, called upon friends, family and neighbours, most of whom had also been affected by the clearances. The resultant mob of somewhere between two and three hundred angry Highlanders — armed with agricultural tools — forced its way into the pub, evicting and scattering Mackay’s little group. Which was ironic.
Press for Assistance
Although, from a legal point of view, the residents of Ceannabeinne were simply adding criminal offences to their lists of woes, their mob-handed response to eviction actually worked in their favour because it was big enough and noisy enough to get noticed by the press.
While James Anderson might have had legal right on his side, public sympathy was firmly with his tenants. In view of this, none of them were arrested for their rioting and they were given a year to prepare for their departure, rather than the original 48 hours’ notice. This helped somewhat but it didn’t change the fact that they had to leave.
Today, only one of their buildings remains standing and that’s the old schoolhouse, now a holiday cottage.
The road zig-zagged a bit, the corners revealing the tell-tale signs of slight realignment as it carried me past Rispond Beach. At the far end of the beach’s little cove, I espied a sign for the ‘Golden Eagle zipline & freefall jump’.
Unsurprisingly, precisely zero golden eagles were using the zipline and I felt no desire to either. Instead, I followed the A-road as it veered right, past the turn-off for Rispond (where James Anderson had resided) and headed inland.
On the A-Road
From here on in, the A838 ran parallel to Loch Eriboll, the UK’s deepest sea loch.
I ambled along, very much enjoying the splendid isolation. Somewhere off on the left, according to my map, was a Bronze Age souterrain but, if so, it was totally invisible to me.
Close by where it was supposed to be, a track led down to the waterside and a single solitary building at Port Chamuill. I believe this belongs to a fish farm now but, back in 1750 when James Dorret — valet to the 3rd Duke of Argyll — mapped the area, ‘Port Chamuil’ marked the end of the road from Durness.
It resumed at an unlabelled point on the far side, which was actually clearly Àrd Neackie. A ferry crossing was strongly implied but no such service exists now, so I kept going…
Before too long, I could see Portnancon (port na con, ‘port of the dogs’), a tiny crofting hamlet and former fishing station.
Up to the 1930s, there used to be a ferry from its pier to Àrd Neackie, it having taken over from Port Chamuil as the crossing point. In those days, an inn — the Heilam Inn, named for a nearby settlement — stood at Àrd Neackie and the ferry was accordingly known as the Heilam Ferry.
This wasn’t, it turns out, Portnancon’s only ferry destination; back in the 1870s, when the OS was compiling its 1st edition, there were two ferry routes from Portnancon — one to the Heilam Inn and another to Eriboll, the settlement that gave the loch its name. Had either been still running, I would have taken the shortcut but, alas, I was ninety years too late.
A surprisingly short distance after Portnancon, I entered the tiny village of Laid (Leathad, ‘hill slope’), which was strung out along the roadside and seemed to be more a sequence of individual houses than any kind of integrated settlement. Created in 1832 to house families cleared from Eriboll, it today comprises eighteen scattered crofts.
As I strode through Laid, I espied Eilean Choraidh sitting in the loch. This little islet is also known in English as Horse Island, not that it had any horses that I could see. Though empty now, it presumably had at least some horses and quite a lot of other activity in the 19th century, when it was quarried for lime.
It was no less busy a century earlier; back in 1750, when William Roy (1726-1790) mapped the area, he showed no less than three settlements crammed on the island. This activity had dwindled somewhat by 1931, when the island had only one permanent human inhabitant and was subsequently abandoned altogether. This was just as well, however, because in WW2 the RAF would have evacuated any residents anyway, because they wanted to relentlessly bomb it.
Battleships & U-Boats
The RAF’s bombing runs were actually not so much equicidal in nature as practice runs for bombing the German battleship Tirpitz. It wasn’t great practice, admittedly, what with the island’s lack of movement and anti-aircraft fire, but it was practice nonetheless. It was also not Loch Eriboll’s only taste of the war — the Royal Navy used its deep waters as an anchorage several times and sailors spelt out the names of their ships, including HMS Hood and Amethyst, with stones on the hillside above Laid.
At the end of the war, Germany’s surviving U-boats sailed into Loch Eriboll to surrender.
Choraidh Croft Café
Like the U-boats, I was ready to surrender as I made my way up the loch. In my case, though, it was hunger and fatigue that I was fighting, rather than the Royal Navy. It was thus with a sense of joyous deliverance that I came across a sign indicating an open café towards the end of the village. The tourist season in northern Scotland generally ends with September and I had been sure that I would be out of luck. I was so surprised, in fact, that I didn’t quite believe my luck until I was sat at a table, a cup of tea and a slice of cake set before me.
If I was surprised to find the café, its proprietor seemed equally surprised to have a customer, having apparently resigned himself to an afternoon of sitting, reading his book.
Amongst other things, we chatted amiably about my plans for the day and the extreme unlikelihood of my reaching Tongue before sunset. But that was fine, I already knew that. And, since I knew that and wasn’t attempting to race the daylight, I took my time in the café, recouping my energy.
It was some while later that I emerged but I felt much better for it. I was refuelled and re-watered and altogether bouncier as I resumed my journey towards the head of the loch. But not, thankfully, quite so bouncy as to want to break into song.
As the road neared the end of the loch, it had to cross over the Abhainn an t-Srath Bhig (‘river of the small valley’).
In 1807, when Aaron Arrowsmith (1750–1823) compiled his maps, he didn’t note how it crossed but he showed it crossing to the west of the farmstead of Polla, at a point that was marked as a ford on the OS maps that came after him.
While the old fording point still exists, I was spared having to get my feet cold and wet by the 1830s efforts of the Duke of Sutherland, who liked to break up the time between clearances with a spot of road-building. I guess it helped counter the argument that the evictees had nowhere to go.
Cynicism aside, I was personally thankful for Sutherland’s bridge as the burn looked pretty damned cold. Certainly, a gang of lads who were fishing in it nearby were making an effort to stay out of it, despite being well-equipped with waders. Feeling glad of my warm, dry feet, I kept walking, rounding the head of the loch.
Head of the Loch
In Arrowsmith’s day, if his map is correct, the ‘road’, such at it was, headed south, then east, climbing over some sizable hills to gain the head of Loch Hope. No traces of that road, nor the settlements upon it, were shown on the first OS maps, compiled about seventy years later. No doubt the townships had been cleared but you’d think there’d be some hint remaining that they were once there.
Still, much as that might be cause for musing over maps later, that did not affect my walk; I was following Sutherland’s road as it, in its modern A838 guise, climbed up the western bank of Loch Eriboll.
Kouling or Calnevall
As it climbed, the road passed settlements noted by Arrowsmith but existing no more, such as Kouling, which looks like it occupied the same location as the settlement Roy labelled as Calnevall. Whatever its name, it’s not there now, as I had ample chance to observe while the road veered inland around pretty much nothing.
Having passed this absence of village, the road climbed steeply towards a hamlet that Roy, Dorret and Arrowsmith could all agree on, as could my OS map and modern road signs. It was Eriboll (Earabol).
Eriboll is small but it’s been there quite a while. Its name derives from Old Norse eyrr-bol meaning ‘farmstead on a gravel beach’ but expressing it rather more compactly.
The beach in question, and indeed much of Eriboll, lay at the end of a side-track that passed through Eriboll Farm. It was to that beach that the ferry from Portnancon had run back in the 1870s.
From Eriboll, the road descended then rose again, now flanked by copious quantities of gorse. It passed Eriboll’s church (built 1804), which stood distant from the hamlet, as if afraid it might see something that it disapproved of. Then, still climbing gently, it brought me to its summit, from which I could see ahead to the peninsula of Àrd Neackie — an island joined to the loch shore by a beach.
The road lost height as it rounded Kempie Bay (home to a fish farm) and the tiny settlement of Kempie. This was labelled ‘Kempy’ on OS maps in the 40s and as ‘Kempy House’ in the 20s. Before that, the OS labelled the same place as Ach’ a Ghearraiseach (‘field of the swingle-chain’). Whatever you want to call it, there was very little there and I kept going…
A little further on, the road became briefly and pointlessly two-lane before collapsing back down to single-track. It climbed again, though not by much — just enough to make the side-track down to Àrd Neackie unpleasantly steep. I restricted myself to standing at the top of it and gazing across to witness Àrd Neackie’s tragic state of innlessness.
The Ferry House
The Heilam Inn stood to the left and in front of that one house still standing, which was the ferry house. The latter was lived in by the family of George Mackay, a cabinet-maker turned ferryman.
George was persuaded to take up the responsibilities of the latter, and also those of a boatbuilder, by the Duke of Sutherland; he had been planning to emigrate to Canada instead. He ran the ferry from the late 1880s onwards and was joined in this after WW1 by his son Alec, who had fought at Gallipoli.
The ferries ceased in the 1930s but Alec remained in the ferry house until his death in 1957; it then passed to others of his family who stayed until 1990, after which it was abandoned. It has now remained empty for almost thirty years.
The dark, square arches on the left of Àrd Neackie are lime kilns, used by Lord Reay — the estate’s 18th century owner, prior to the Duke of Sutherland — to burn the lime quarried out of Eilean Choraidh.
I was strongly tempted to go down there and take a look but was dissuaded by two not entirely unrelated things. One was the climb back up again, which my legs weren’t all too enthusiastic about, and the other was the knowledge that I had to complete thirty miles. No, Àrd Neackie would be diversion too far.
The road continued to climb from Àrd Neackie, not too steeply but still noticeably. I trudged up it and almost went past a completely unremarkable rough asphalt track, overgrown with moss and grass in its centre, which branched off to the right. Almost but not quite. I had, after all been looking out for this, which was that strange favourite of mine: an older road alignment.
I’m not sure when, but at some point no earlier than the 1970s, the road was straightened to bypass Heilam (after which the inn was named). I saw no need for such bypassing.
Heilam today is not much to look at, a single cottage on what used to be the road but is now essentially its driveway. Its singular existence is a post-clearance thing, however, for, while it sat in splendid isolation on the OS 1st edition (where it was spelt ‘Heilem’), Roy showed ten little red blobs (representing dwellings), labelling them ‘Elam’. Dorret chose to spell it ‘Hylam’ but Arrowsmith simply left it off his 1807 map, suggesting it was by then already too small to take note of.
Loch Ach’ an Lochaidh
When the tiny stretch of old road rejoined the A838, it did so just in time to give me a view of Loch Ach’ an Lochaidh and, beyond it, the open sea. The A-road had now turned away from Loch Eriboll and was heading eastwards towards Loch Hope. Loch Ach’ an Lochaidh was just one of several small lochs dotting the headland, past which the road now snaked.
The road lost height and curved around Loch Creagach before cutting across moorland towards the foot of Loch Hope. Soon enough, that loch came into view with the 927 m peak of Ben Hope (Beinn Hòb, ‘bay mountain’) looming behind it.
I could, I realised, see a great deal of Hope.
Although its name means ‘bay mountain’, Ben Hope did at one time represent the only hope a traveller might have for continuing on eastwards. This was because beyond Loch Hope lay the Moine (A’ Mhòine), a bog so large and treacherous that it was worthy of simply naming it ‘The Bog’ in Gaelic.
The Moine Path
Until Sutherland found a way to build a road across it in the 1830s, the idea of doing so had been considered ludicrous. The old route — still called the Moine Path — ran from the head of Loch Hope and cut across Ben Hope’s lower slopes before striking out east on higher ground to reach the head of the Kyle of Tongue. It is marked only as a footpath on modern OS maps but the 1st and 2nd editions still showed it as a road. Arrowsmith didn’t show it at all, suggesting it was never all that substantial, but it would have joined neatly up with his now-vanished route from Loch Eriboll.
Much as travellers had once crossed Loch Eriboll by ferry, so too did they used to cross Loch Hope. The ferry ran until at least the mid 1920s and possibly into the 30s but eventually a bridge was built — not quite in the same place but further north, across the River Hope.
At some point, improvements saw a new bridge built right next to where its predecessor had been and it was this that carried me over the water. Good work, bridge!
Roads Old and New
Hope Bridge had been located in a lovely wooded valley but the road wasn’t going to stay down there for long. It quickly climbed and struck out over the empty flatness of the Moine.
The current road was built in 1993, in some places following Sutherland’s alignment, in others smoothing it out or running alongside. While the 20th century roadbuilders had modern earth-moving equipment and the ability to construct massive embankments, Sutherland and his road surveyor, Peter Lawson, needed to be rather more inventive. They chose to build on top of huge bundles of heather, forming a raft on which their road was supported. That sounds a bit silly but it totally worked and most of their road is still there, floating on top of the bog. Most of it.
Attempting the Old Road
The modern road was reassuringly solid, so afar as I could tell, but I kept getting tantalising glimpses of bits of old road running alongside. I naturally thought to try following one and quickly discovered that building on heather had had its limitations. No longer maintained, these abandoned sections of smoothed-out bends had not only formed gaping potholes but had lost some sections entirely to the dark, sucking morass. I decided to stick with the modern road for now.
The above was a curve of old road alignment that swept south of Loch Maovally, while the 1993 road passed to the loch’s north. My OS map suggested the two would properly connect but a satellite image had warned me they would not. Still, I was happy to squelch down the embankment onto this section of old road and give Sutherland’s heather-supported road-building another try.
This section was at least marked on my map, whereas the disintegrating other bits were not, so I was game to give it a go. I merrily followed the old road around as it curved around Loch Maovally. As I did so, I took note of the condition of the ground.
It didn’t take all that long before I found a lengthy section where the path was also as wet as Loch Maovally. It had subsided and the water level was high, turning it into one long, ankle-deep puddle. A mossy ankle deep puddle too, since various types of green stuff were absolutely loving that environment. I looked at this expanse of boot-defeating wetness and knew that what I ought to do was turn back. Yeah, as if. Instead, I delved deep into my bag to retrieve my secret weapon…
…a couple of heavy-duty binbags. I find it generally pays to have spare waterproof bags just in case they are needed and now I saw an unexpected need. Two durable binbags and some strategic sticky tape deftly created a pair of impromptu waders. So off I went, splash plash, splash…
The going was slow as the water was murky and I had to take care in case the asphalt had collapsed. But I tested my way with my walking poles and soon emerged triumphantly from the flooding. Did I remove my makeshift waders at this point? No, I did not. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about splashing through flooding, its that there’s always a second stretch just when you think you’re done. And so there was.
Eventually, I reached the actual end of the flooding, where a small barrier was in place to stop anyone from being so mind-bogglingly stupid as to splash their way onwards. They hadn’t needed one at the other end, of course, because it didn’t actually connect with the road and no one would be quite so idiotic as to insist on getting onto it. Ah well.
The now dry old road conveyed me to Moine House, built at the halfway point across the Moine as a refuge for travellers.
Although Sutherland intended Moine House to shelter travellers, he also knew that it would require maintenance and that the best way to achieve that was to have someone live in it. Accordingly, it was also a family home.
In 1881, its tenant was an 80-year old forester named George Mackay, who lived with his daughter, son, daughter-in-law and no less than five grandchildren. Any travellers asking to stay the night were certainly not going to feel lonely!
The sun was low in the sky and I was expecting to run out of daylight before I ran out of Moine but even so, I was keen to press on since Moine House was so much less cosy than it had been in George’s day.
A cross-connection to the modern road beckoned, in place to allow educational visits to Moine House, but I stubbornly insisted on following the old road around even though I now knew it probably wouldn’t connect properly at that end either. And so it proved. A few squelchy steps and I was back on the 1993 road, my makeshift wading gear stowed.
Other Old Road Options
The modern road was doing that thing where it cuts across the old one like the central bar of a dollar sign cutting across the ‘S’. I was thus offered a second stretch of old road almost immediately but this one was also mostly underwater and I’d had enough of wading. That being so, I followed the modern road round for a bit until the two alignments crossed again. There, I found a long stretch of old road in pretty good condition. It seemed rude not to take it.
Sunset & Torchlight
As expected, the sun set while I was walking that road. Twilight lingered for a while and I stood and regarded the moon over Ben Loyal, thinking that it was an awesome sight, which it was. And it was one that I could never have seen were it not for Peter Lawson and Sutherland’s other road-builders — being caught on the Moine at night without a road would likely have been deadly, even with a good torch.
The torch that I had on me was a good torch. In fact, it was one of eyeball-melting brightness, having been designed by some Germans who I can only assume really wanted to design laser guns. Even so, it was only so helpful when twilight finally failed and darkness fell upon the Moine.
Fortunately, this occurred just after I’d regained the modern road. I stuck with that, ignoring some final bits of old road, and let it carry me down to the Kyle of Tongue (Caol Thunga), which is basically a shallow sea loch.
Kyle of Tongue Bridge
Until 1953, the kyle was crossed by ferry but greater car ownership meant more people willing to detour around the head of the loch on its narrow road rather than pay the ferry fare. As car numbers grew, this became insufficient for the traffic and, in 1971, a causeway and bridge were built across the kyle. Both were refurbished in 2011 and are probably quite cool from an engineering perspective. Sadly I failed to appreciate either, being tired and in the dark.
A Never-Ending Journey?
Despite having crossed the Kyle of Tongue, I still hadn’t reached my destination — the village of Tongue (Tunga) is another mile and a half from the end of the causeway. Its name comes from Old Norse tunga but means exactly what it sounds like. Specifically, it refers to a tongue-shaped spit of land projecting into the Kyle, presumably that which now forms the causeway’s eastern end. All of which is well and good but I couldn’t help feel that Tongue was blowing me a raspberry as I plodded along the A838 with no sign of it getting any closer.
Eventually, finally, Tongue appeared as if from nowhere and I joyously located my hotel. A bath, some dinner and a couple of drinks did wonders to restore me as did the incredulity of the hotel staff when they asked me what I’d been up to. That’s always fun.
I often struggle with insomnia but not that night, that’s for sure.
This time: 30 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,888 miles