Bothy vagabonds in the far north pt1 – Ben Armine

by backpackingbongos

The word vagabond is derived from the Latin adjective vagabundus, “inclined to wander”, from the verb vagor, “wander”. It does not denote a member of a nomadic people, but rather an individual who follows a wandering lifestyle within a sedentary society.  It is also the title of one of my favourite New Model Army songs.

As a member of a sedentary society I crave getting into the hills for a wander, a strong desire to spend each night in a different place.  Tents are a marvelous modern invention which allow the backpacker to choose the perfect location to sleep every night.  However they are not always ideal at the end of October when exploring the far North of Scotland for a week, especially when you have a muddy dog in tow.  Noting a scattering of remote bothies on the map I decided that I would plan routes around them, they would be the basic framework for backpacking the wild places.  I debated whether to spend a week doing one long backpack or a series of shorter ones.  In the end shorter backpacks were the easiest option as you don’t have to carry as much stuff.  The car can be left to return to for supplies before moving on to somewhere totally different.  This gives the opportunity to cram a greater variety of landscapes into a short period of time.  Several backpacks also give the opportunity to seek the occasional real bed for the night and a beer!  To wander through remote hills and spend each night in a different bothy is my idea of heaven.

Unfortunately many miles lay between Nottingham and my slice of heaven, several hundred to be imprecise.  Thankfully my walking partner for the week Peter Edwards from Writes of Way lives in Glasgow, an opportunity to break up the journey.  I therefore had a billet for the night and was treated to some fine hospitality before continuing the drive the next morning.

Day 1 – 7.1 miles with 200 metres ascent

The Crask Inn sits in splendid isolation on the main A836, which runs between Lairg and Tongue.  A main road only in name as for much of its length it is single track.  We parked up opposite the Inn and popped in to let them know we would be leaving a vehicle there for three days.  Kai the landlady was exceptionally friendly and told me that the bothies we were heading to were well worth visiting, she even got out a photo album.  This put my mind at rest as previously I was not certain that they actually existed.  Dogs saddled up with their new rucksacks we set off eastwards across a large expanse of boggy moor.

The going could charitably be described as ‘damp’ as the track was effectively a series of ruts made by an argocat.  The going was slow, but spirits high as we let the wilds slowly envelope us.  Civilisation slowly drifting away.  Or was it?  After an hour of walking we turned around and noticed that the whitewashed building of the Crask was still firmly in view.

Up until this point the dogs had been on leads as the moor was dotted with some rather fine-looking Highland cattle, complete with pointed horns.  Cattle in open country make me nervous when there are no fences to jump over if the going gets hairy, thankfully they showed no interest in the dogs.

Finally the long boggy trudge across the moor ended as the path became more defined as it began to climb.  At the 350 metre high Bealach Easach the scenery suddenly changed.  The featureless moors were exchanged for a world of crags and lochs, the second most northerly Munro of Ben Klibreck to our left.  This is a landscape on a large scale and there was a feeling of entering a place not many people visit.

The path down from the Bealach was a joy to walk as it contoured high above the valley floor.  The dark crags and grey clouds gave a brooding atmosphere, enhanced by a series of bellows from red deer stags.  This appeared to spook Dougal and we told him that they eat chocolate labradors who give chase.  Good to teach him these stories whilst still young.

The footpath along the north side of Loch a Bhealaich appeared to be endless but thankfully the going was firm and dry and we made good progress.  The dogs had soon forgotten that they were wearing packs and were happily trotting in front of us.  I began to wonder about the water resistance of the packs as they had been dragged through several bogs, usually due to canine negligence when crossing the spagnum pools of doom.

As we crossed the isthmus between Loch a Bhealaich and Loch Choire our luck with the weather suddenly broke.  Curtains of rain drifted across the impressively large Loch Choire, blurring the horizon.  The early evening autumn light in the rain was magical and we both wished we had the means to capture it.  Reuben was the first onto the bridge across the river between the two lochs and I saw him temporarily freeze as it started swaying.  The rain started to intensify as we walked the sandy beach and we began trying to work out if anyone was in the loch side bothy.  Since leaving the Crask Inn there had been fresh footprints from a fell shoe, were they also headed for the bothy?  It was apparent that the place was tiny, would someone already there appreciate spending the night with two very wet dogs?  At moments like that your eyes can play tricks and I thought that I spotted smoke coming from the chimney.  As we finally approached, the door was locked from the outside, a clear indication that no one was home.

We entered a little gem of a bothy, our clothing and rucksacks soaking the wooden floor.  We were soon changed into dry clothing and had the stove lit.  Being a small one-roomed wooden building it quickly became toasty inside and the dogs claimed a prime spot to put their roll mats to have a doze.

Unfortunately it was not a restful night.  Firstly my bladder went into meltdown, I had to get up for a pee several times in the night.  The dogs were also rather excitable, any noise Reuben made woke Dougal and vice versa.  I remember at one point drifting off only to be bundled by 30kg of excited labrador.  The bubble wrap on the sleeping platforms made for a luxurious surface but any movement would result in several ‘pops’.  Peace finally came a couple of hours before dawn when the dogs decided that Pete’s thermarest was the place to be.

Day 2 – 10.2 miles with 825 metres ascent

Dawn comes late in the far north the week before the clocks change.  It was magical standing in the cold and still pre dawn light with a cup of coffee in my hands.  The rain had lasted most of the night but at some point the cloud disappeared and the temperature plummeted.  The only sound whilst I stood there was the occasional roar of a stag in a nearby glen.

Bothy mornings are easier than those in a tent.  We were in no great hurry and had time for a leisurely breakfast and numerous hot drinks.  The dogs were constantly on the prowl for a spot of food.

As the sun eventually appeared in our glen, the clouds melted from the summit of Ben Klibreck.  With the wooden hut and the surrounding hills the scenery had a definite Scandiwegian feel about it.

The plan for the day was to head deep into the hinterland of the Ben Armine Forest, a huge empty area on the map.  We had our fingers crossed that the weather would remain good, if so we would climb high to the summit of Ben Armine itself.

The track on the south side of Loch Choire was a delight to walk.  Trees (not counting those nasty christmas type ones) are a rarity in the hills this far north.  The track twisted and turned its way through a fine autumnal display.

Typically just as we approached the end of the loch near the lodge the sun disappeared and the sky once again began to look ominous.  The narrow path marked on the map heading south into the hills turned out to be a well maintain track and we were soon gaining height giving views back the way we had come.

Crossing the 420 metre contour we debated whether to continue along the track to the bothy or hit the hills.  As we had yet to have lunch we decided to climb higher, if the weather crapped out it should be easy enough to trudge down into the valley.  Initially the going was tough through the usual rough grass and heather.

Reuben however even though fully laden with his new pack was able to make climbing the hill look easy.

As is usual with the Scottish hills, the higher we climbed the easier the walking became.  I thought the hills had a resemblance to the Monadhliath mountains, although slightly lower.  As we reached the col between Meall Ard and Creag na h-lolaire that resemblance changed completely.  The view that greeted us is totally unique to this part of the world.  We were on the edge of a high plateau overlooking the magnificent Flow Country.  Low flat moorland stretched for miles towards the horizon, broken by the occasional hill rising sentinel like from the sea of brown.  The only man-made structures visible being coniferous forests, a single estate track and one solitary building many miles away.  I don’t think I have ever seen a view quite like it, a photo truly cannot do it justice.  We debated whether the land on the far far horizon was the Orkneys.  Just out of shot to the left was Ben Loyal, a magnificent looking peak.

Standing looking over such a huge expanse of land I felt a twinge of sadness.  There is the very real possibility / inevitability of the horizon being broken by up over 180 giant wind turbines.  Three wind farms are planned in the forests south of Strathy, right on the edge of the largest RSPB nature reserve in the UK at Forsinard.  My next post will describe a lovely backpack in that wild area.

On the hill there was a more immediate matter, lunch and shelter from the very cold wind.  A slab of rock provided a brief respite from the wind and we hunkered down to shovel food into our mouths whilst the dogs shivered.  We were quickly moving again as we could tell that the cold was getting to Reuben and Dougal.

From Meall nan Aighean to Ben Armine there was a fairly large descent and reascent.  Once out of the peat hag ridden col the ground was covered in a luxurious deep carpet of moss which was a joy to walk on.  We were truly in the middle of ‘big sky’ country with the moors seemingly rolling on forever.  The only thing detracting from the real sense of space and wildness was the distant Kilbraur power station and the Gordonbush one which is currently under construction.  Even from several miles away they dominate the softly rolling contours, breaking up the horizon.

We turned our backs and headed east into a vast high level bowl in the hills.

We took a gamble, we could either head for the path that runs directly to the bothy from the col at the south of Ben Armine and risk not getting across the river near the bothy.  Or, take a longer boggier route that would mean crossing the Allt na Seilich Bige earlier.  We took the easier option and were soon on a well graded path, the bothy suddenly coming into view.

Thankfully the river was low and we boulder hopped across dryshod.  Later whilst reading the bothy book we realised that this often is not the case.  We managed to time reaching the bothy to perfection as almost as soon as stepping inside the rain started and the wind picked up.  The bothy is located in pretty much as a remote a spot as it is possible to get in the UK.  It has been converted from the old estate stables and there are three sleeping platforms which are the old stalls as pictured below.

The evening was spent rather unsuccessfully trying to get a peat fire going.  A combination of heather for kindling, damp newspaper and not fully dried out peat made it a challenge.  The best we managed was a small amount of glowing when we blew furiously, zero heat was produced.  We retired to our sleeping bags early and thankfully the dogs were much more settled.

Day 3 – 11.1 miles with 360 metres ascent

The day dawned damp and misty with low cloud covering the hills.  An hour or so was spent soaking up the wild solitude around the bothy often with a cup of coffee in hand.  I had noticed the previous evening that Reuben’s pack had chaffed him under his front legs, which looked sore.  Dougal therefore volunteered to carry his food for him whilst his pack was strapped to the back of Pete’s rucksack.

The plan for the day was to head back to the first nights bothy and then retrace our steps back to the car.  The first kilometre or so was trackless and crossed some boggy terrain.  Dougal managed to fall into a deep and narrow drainage ditch, his panniers wedging him inside.  Thankfully I spotted it happen, otherwise we may have spent a long time looking for him!

We soon located the start of the hill path back to Loch Choire, thankfully this was often raised above the surrounding bogs making progress across the misty moors easy.

The climb to the top of the pass was just 80 metres and it was only when we reached the top that we got the sense that we were high up.  Our onward route descended for 300 metres through a lovely glen.

Movement on a hillside a kilometre or so away indicated that a stalking party was approaching a group of hinds.  Their clothing and movements clearly indicated that they were not hillwalkers.   Suddenly the hinds gave flight leaving the three figures far behind.

We were soon back at the bothy next to the loch for lunch, aware that we still had a few miles to walk before we reached the car.  It was when exiting the bothy that an argocat with three heavily tweeded figures approached.  We resigned ourselves to a good telling off.  It turned out that we had indeed spooked the deer, if we had have been two minutes later the stalking party would have been successful.  However they were very gracious and said that these things happen.  They were relieved that we would be heading off in an opposite direction to them.  We had the impression that the man and woman with the head stalker / ghillie were the owners of the estate.  When we departed I soon regretted asking for a photo as they all looked like they had stepped out of some period drama.

It was good to cross the sandy beach at the head of the loch, this time actually getting a view down its entire length.

The classic Highland bridge took us back onto the isthmus between the two lochs.

Pete, the class warrior then released his previously hidden feelings towards the landed classes……..

For the first time in three days the sun made an appearance as we made the climb towards the Bealach Easach.  It was good to do the climb unencumbered by waterproofs and wearing just a base layer.  The stags were once again bellowing from the same spot as a couple of days earlier.

We took a break at the summit of the bealach, the autumnal colours of the surrounding countryside lit up by the low sun.  The light was truly magical.

Unfortunately we both knew what awaited us on the other side of the pass.  The long boggy descent back to the car seemingly went on forever.  Even when the Crask Inn put in an appearance we knew that there was still an hour to go.  It was two tired, peat sodden dogs and their owners who finally stepped back onto tarmac as dusk approached.

Pete’s account of the trip can be found here.

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36 Comments to “Bothy vagabonds in the far north pt1 – Ben Armine”

  1. Super write up. Looks a great place to go.

  2. Wonderful. The manner which you chronicle the outdoors just fuels my own passion. Keep it up!

  3. I really enjoyed reading about your walk through this area. It’s on my doorstep, more or less, and it’s a walk I’ll have to do sometime. I just got started on backpacking and then got a Cocker Spaniel, who goes wild at the sight of open moorland, so I’ll have to train him a bit first.

    • Thank you Keith. You are very lucky to live up in that part of the world, it is a lovely area. I’m sure that your Cocker Spaniel will love backpacking with you once he has got used to the sight of open moorland.

  4. A great read, James. I’m really looking forward to your Flow Country write-up. I loved the place when I walked through it in ’07. Then there was just the one wind farm…

    • Cheers Alan. The Flow Country is a special place, unlike anywhere else in the UK. I have a funny feeling that there may be more than one wind farm there now…………….

  5. Looks absolutley fantastic! I’ve only ever been in two bothies – Greg’s Hut and Ryvoan Bothy (which is supposed to be haunted) – and am really intrigued by the idea of visiting others. I’d have to take a tent with me though like you did, just in case I didn’t like the look of them when I got there! I love being in wild, lonely places too and feeling a million miles away from everyday life. It’s just a shame that Scotland’s a bit too far away for weekend trips, as it obviously has the best wilderness in the UK.

    • Bothys are a great way to sleep in the hills Chrissie, especially in the winter or when the weather is bad. There are loads out there, around 100 just with the MBA, plenty more private ones as well. I also wish that Scotland was a little bit closer, need a weeks holiday to do a good trip up there.

  6. i tend to dry bag everything the dog carries in his pack..as he can be known to swim….water not bog…great write up

  7. James, probably your best write up. Excellent post – makes me want to go there tomorrow !

  8. A remote and wild area. I can see why linking the bothies was a good plan. Sadly the wind farms will ruin the landscape. Great read James.

    • Cheers Martin. There was a real sense of remoteness on this trip, even when still on the road! I do like a night in a bothy, providing the company is good.

  9. Brilliant report.! It`s an area I have never ventured into and I shall file it away in my “places to visit” list. I think I may prefer a summer visit though 🙂
    The Crask is a fantastic place,isn`t it ?
    Alex.

    • Thanks Alex. A summer visit would be good but I would imagine that the midges would be unbearable then? The Crask is rather special, one of a kind. Somewhere I look forward to visiting again very soon.

  10. nice report James. Im a bit envious actually, although after reading Pete’s account as well, I think a trip to bag these 2 remote Grahams will be happening sooner rather than later. Beautiful light in that last photo.

    • I look forward to your trip report when you bag those two Grahams David. There is a very good track in from the east if you are into cycling into the hills, maybe doable in a day that way. But then you would miss a night in one of these wonderful bothies.

  11. Hello JB, cracking post. Who’s the handsome dude in all the pics? I’m very grateful to you for taking the time to write such a comprehensive and well-considered account of this great couple of days! Looking forward to the tales of Strath Naver…

    • The handsome dude in the photos is Reuben, surely you have not forgotten his name already?! Strath Naver tales should be delivered to you tomorrow evening sir.

  12. another crackin writeup and superb piccies James. The flow country looks just great

  13. Great write up as always, True wilderness is hard to find in the UK and getting harder 😦

    Really interesting to read both accounts of the same trip.

    “Now I like backpackingbongos write up but I also like the one on writesofway. But which one is best? Ther’s only one way to find out…..

    FIGHT!”

    I watch to much TV with my kids

    • Not sure if I want to fight Pete as he recons that his nick name at school was, ‘Twice as hard’. I do have the better looking and more intellegent dog though……………..

      I hate to think what sort of tv you are watching with your kids Andy?!

      • It’s just Harry Hill’s TV Burp – slapstick and ever so slighty rude for a Saturady night prime-time slot. Bit sad but me and the kids love it – that’s one of his catchphrases:

        Now as to the two canines on your adventures – “Now I like Dougal, but I also Iike Reuben, but which one is best etc etc….

  14. An absolutely wonderful report. You’ve captured the drama and magic of the area – it looks a fantastic place to be a vagabond! This trip is definitely giving me some ideas for next year when I intend to get around the far north Munros and some of the other (arguably more interesting) hills in the area.

    • Thanks for that Nick. It most certainly is the place to be if you want to be a vagabond! The Munros in the area are only part of the story, the smaller hills are filled with character and deserve to be explored.

  15. Another great write-up, I only came across your site a few nights ago and my wife is despairing of me reading my way through it, i’m reading a blog a night before bed and it sends me to sleep in good spirits dreaming of wild places, not backpacked that area but have cycled through Sutherland on a end to end ride, great photo’s to mate.

  16. Hi , i’m not too far away from you in Lincoln. We are heading for the Flow Country soon and immensely appreciated your blog. Will keep you up to speed! http://www.mark-greenland.blogspot.co.uk

    • Hi Mark. Enjoy the Flow Country, it is a wild and grand landscape. Look forward to hearing about it 🙂

      • Yo dude, just got back from some first class winter walking in the flow country, pulling in Ben Klibreck from Loch Choire bothy and visiting Ben Armine stables. Also discovered that superb house/pub the Crask. Blog to follow. http://www.mark- yell.blogspot.co.uk

      • It can’t be beaten can it? Crask is a superb spot as well, hope when it is sold the new owners are as friendly as the current ones. I will check out you blog.

  17. Hi my Flow Country Blog is now posted http://www.mark-empty.blogspot.co.uk Many thanks to you two Guys for inspiration as you will see it is mainly following in your footsteps. Thanks again and I will keep an eye on your adventures. All the best. Motherland Mark.

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