As we reached the car after the Ben Armine backpack a lone figure approached us from the cottage close to the Crask Inn. He introduced himself as John and told us that the woodburner was lit. I had phoned the Crask the week before and inquired about accommodation. The landlord and his wife were having their first evening out that year and the Inn would be shut. Thankfully it transpired that they also own the cottage / bothy / bunkhouse just down the road. A night would cost us £11 a night each, self catering.
With the car repositioned outside the cottage we went inside to say hello to John and have a nosy inside. It turned out to be a very welcoming and homely place to stay, with the woodburner kicking out some heat. It probably would not win any awards for decor or mod cons but for us it was perfect after a few days in the hills. We even managed to bag a room each. A convivial evening was spent in front or the fire with beer which the landlord had left for us to help ourselves. Moffat John was great company and time passed quickly with his stories.
As I lay in bed that night I listened to the wind howl through the eaves, fingers crossed the weather would allow a safe passage across the flow country the next day.
The generator was off (mains electricity has yet to reach the Crask) when we got up at 8.00am, so packing and breakfast had to be done by torchlight. It really surprised me how dark the mornings were up there. With the car full of hounds we drove north through the village of Altnaharra, often mentioned as having the coldest recorded temperature in the UK. The road twisting and turning alongside Loch Naver was delightful and we eventually parked up next to the bridge at Rhefail in Strath Naver.
Our destination for the day was to be the MBA bothy called the Croft House near Loch Strathy. It is a place that I have wanted to visit for a long time now, although I would find it difficult to say exactly why. Perhaps it is the fact that very little is written about it. Or is it that not many people visit, seeing as there is a distinct lack of mountains nearby. Maybe its the inaccessibility with either a 12 mile walk / cycle along forestry tracks or a boggy slog across the moors.
We opted for the boggy slog across the moors.
Day 1 – 5 miles with 270 metres ascent
The dogs were firmly leashed as we passed through the estate buildings at Rhifail, due to the presence of large amounts of sheep and pheasants. We had set off from the car without a firm plan as to our exact route. To be honest looking at the map it all looked a bit daunting with the numerous tiny lochans, streams and bogs. It was going to have to be a case of make it up as we go along depending on the ground conditions.
Thankfully an argocat track led us onto and around the northern shoulder of Beinn Rifa-gil. However as we crossed the shoulder passing Loch Warrender the full force of the weather hit us in the face. It was a right old boggy stagger into the cold and damp wind.
Brief respite was obtained when we found a slab of rock to hunker down behind and eat our sandwiches. My request at the Crask Inn earlier that day for a sandwich paid off nicely when I was presented with three cheese and tomato butties with homemade bread for the princely sum of £2, bargain. With the dogs suitably dribbling (after ensuring that no crumbs were left) we set off once more in an easterly direction, thankful for the argocat track leading the way. A short descent and we found ourselves in a shallow basin, the flat moorland stretching away for miles. Very atmospheric.
Unfortunately we had to part company with the argocat track and we continued across increasingly wet moorland, picking a course between two lochs.
We made it to a low but firm ridge without mishap and turned to look back the way we had walked. There had been the potential for a spot of bother, the ground quaking as we made progress across it. You need to keep your wits about you and be ready to retreat if the going gets too risky.
Route finding was now straightforward as we simply had to follow the deer fence that forms the boundary to the Strathy forest. Initailly the going was not too tough and we let our guard down a bit whilst having a natter. We suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a swamp and it was clear that to continue forward would be unwise. A large detour eventually brought us back to the fence which we followed without further incident to where a new bridge crosses the River Strathy. The dogs managed to spook a deer but only gave a half arsed attempt at a chase, they knew immediately that it really would be rather pointless.
The deer fence and a padlocked gate provided a bit of an obstacle to two men and their dogs. Dougal and Reuben had to be manhandled over the very high ladder stile. Reuben is a pretty calm 22kg, whilst Dougal is not so calm and weighs closer to 30kg. Guess who was easier to get over?
The bothy was a substantial building and once again we wondered if anyone would be there, a very fresh set of prints from welly boots were on the ground. It was empty and we set about exploring the building which has three rooms downstairs and a further two upstairs. I bagged a cosy room downstairs complete with a wooden bed frame and portable tv. The tv was a welcome bothy prank, similar to the telephone on the wall when I visited Keilderhead bothy. Pete sensibly chose a room upstairs which would be heated by the fire in the room below.
The bothy shed was absolutely crammed full of wood, including old fence posts and pallets. It was clear that you would have to be very poor fire lighters to not get a hot blaze going in this bothy. Half an hour of sawing left us with a good pile of logs next to a very toasty fire.
You may have noticed a pair of boots drying to one side in the photo of the fire above. This really is not a good idea folks and should not be done. The end result for Pete was a dry pair of boots that had totally melted at the toes, rendering them a very painful fit. The removal of Pete’s toes was not an option for the walk back, nor were the dog chewed pair of crocs he was wearing in the bothy. It was going to be a long and painful walk back to the car for him.
With the exception of the boot disaster it was one of those classic bothy evenings in front of a roaring fire. It’s just a shame that we were in bed by 10pm and totally missed the aurora borealis that was reported to have put on a show in the far north that night…………….
Day 2 – 5 miles with 140 metres ascent
We needed an early start as we were due to pick up Pete’s wife Fiona from Kinbrace station at lunch time. At 7.00am it was still totally dark outside. Dawn came slowly, soft light filtering through the low clouds and drizzle. By 9.00am we were packed and ready for the walk back to the car. A moment was taken to soak up the bothy environs before hoisting on our rucksacks and setting off the way we had come.
Now, I have managed to get through this entire post without mentioning windfarms. Unfortunately it is not possible to write about the Croft House bothy without doing so. Bear with me while I get this depressing bit over and done with. The bothy lays slap bang in the middle of the proposed Strathy south windfarm, the planned number of turbines is 77. Looking at the map of the wind farm posted in the bothy a turbine will literally be metres away from the building. It gets worse, plans have also been submitted for the Strathy north windfarm with 33 turbines. That’s not all folks as there is also scoping going on for Strathy wood with 28 turbines and Strathy forest with 21 turbines. If my maths is correct that make a staggering 159 turbines in this area.
The proposed Strathy windfarms are bounded on three sides by the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Area of Conservation and Special Protection Area, accolades which recognise the European importance of the area’s habitats and birds. The RSPB who own the neighbouring Forsinard reserve have been opposing the plans. Being is such a sparsely populated area and miles from any sizeable habitation my gut instinct tells me that the Scottish Government will give the go ahead for Strathy north and south. If this does become the case I urge you to visit before the turbines go up, it’s a magical spot.
Lets continue with the walk……………..
Actually there are not many words I can put to the return journey as it was identical to the walk in. We knew what bogs to avoid and where to pick up the argocat track. The light however was slightly better, so a few more photographs.
A tiny little green grassy mound in the middle of the moor was for some reason highly attractive for the dogs, maybe it is where the deer come for a rub?
Three hours later Strath Naver came into view, the descent filled with Pete’s curses as his toes were battered by his melted boots.
As we followed the track through the estate buildings at Rhifail I was stopped and asked, “Are you lost?” by a dapper looking chap, I replied that I was not and that we were heading back to the cars near the bridge. I think that this was his polite way of telling me to get off his land.
Back at the car and out of our peat stained clothing we drove to the tiny village of Kinbrace with its railway halt. The landscape that we drove through was outstanding, huge expanses of moor dotted with lochs and isolated mountains. The sense of space and scale was impressive. The single track roads were a joy to drive, at one point we drove for twenty miles and only passed two vehicles.
Fiona had fallen foul of the ‘modern’ British railway system and the dreaded, ‘bus replacement service’. Who wants to pay good money for a train only to have to sit on a bus and miss your connection? Apparently her journey was shared by panicked passengers who were unsure if they would meet their connections. In the end they did not. Thankfully a fleet of taxis ferried people to their onward destination and Fiona arrived only half an hour late.
The original plan for the afternoon was to head for a remote bothy on the north coast, however during the planning stage I had been overly optimistic. We realised that it would not be possible to reach before darkness, crossing blanket bog above cliffs in the dark is not one of my favourite pastimes. We elected to return to the Crask Inn, what a fine decision that was.
Moffat John was still firmly ensconced in the bothy / bunkhouse and the place was once again warm and welcoming. We had dinner at the Crask itself this time and what a wonderful meal that was. There was no menu and Mike the owner disappeared into the kitchen to rustle something up once he had finished tagging his sheep. Lentil soup was followed by wild salmon and then apple and blackberry crumble. Three courses for £12.95, that went down very well, especially with a couple of bottles of organic Black Isle ale. After a convivial evening I slept very well, looking forward to our adventures on Assynt.
Pete’s version of events are on his blog here. He was lucky enough to have a much more handsome chap to pose in his photographs.