Bothy vagabonds in the far north pt2 – Flow Country

by backpackingbongos

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.

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25 Responses to “Bothy vagabonds in the far north pt2 – Flow Country”

  1. One look at the map was enough for me to know that I`ll never repeat your route 🙂 Having said that it usually transpires that things are never as bad as they seem,and,if they are,then a healthy dose of humour does the trick.
    The “remote bothy on the north coast” is a cracker at this time of year with the nosie of the seal pups to fall asleep by.
    Looking forward to the final installment…

    • There is a special quality about those moors Alex, well worth getting your boots wet I think. It’s a shame we did not get to visit that remote bothy on the north coast. Maybe for the best if the seals are pupping and with us having two dogs in tow.

  2. Those boots did look awfully close to the fire! I just love the open views you get with moorland type landscapes, although with so much bog I think I would have opted for the forestry tracks route… We were up round that area 2 summers ago, although it was far too midgy then to do anything much. We stayed at a campsite at Altnaharra which was extremely pleasant as campsites go. I bet it’s fantastic up there with a good covering of snow! You didn’t say how muddy the pups got – I expect Reuben’s a self-cleaning hound like Dixie mind, but I can just imagine that long, chocolate tummy fur dripping with peaty mud.

    • If Pete’s boots were any closer to the fire they would have become fuel! I would imagine that this area would be pretty unbearable in the middle of summer with the midges. Snow would be lovely although the roads may be a little bit tricky. Reuben is a self cleaning hound as he does have very fine and short fur, also as soon as he settles for the night he licks himself clean. The ‘chocolate tummy dripping with peaty mud’ I am assuming that you are talking about Dougal and not Pete? Thankfully I never got to see Pete’s tummy…………………..

  3. Can’t beat a night in a remote bothy, in a lonely part of the world with a roaring fire and unlimited fuel – cracking! Those photos of endless bog are amazing

    Sadly the one thing that the far north west lacks is voters, otherwise the SNP wouldn’t be so gung-ho. Either Salmond has never been to these areas to see what will be lost for himself, in which case, shame on him. Or he has been, seen what will be lost and thought, “what the hell”, in which case shame on him. Either way he should be ashamed.

    I suspect I’ll never get to see this area before it’s ruined so you’ve done a great service by recording it’s majesty here for posterity

    • Something magical about sitting in front of a fire in a remote bothy Andy, simply cannot be beaten.

      As to Alex Salmond, I really don’t know what to say. I do think that he truely believes in his governments policy on onshore wind turbines. Unfortunately living south of the border I do not have the power of a vote…………….

      If the turbines do get the go ahead I may make a return visit before they are built, maybe in the middle of winter. That would be superb.

  4. super lovely tales of moors and mounds james, I’ve just been in similar swampy conditions in the Elan valley. Gotta try that Inn sometime, sounds wonderful.

    Its a real pity that energy companies and those blindsided by the green lobby don’t consider the role that Scotland and Wales’ peat moorland plays in carbon lockup – more efficient per square mile than rainforest, I’m reliably informed. Won’t work with roads and concrete all over it. Still, ne’er mind, money to be made and pipers to be paid.

    • The Elan valley is another of my favourites David, I do rather enjoy a good swamp! I have heard the same thing about Peat being one of the worlds most important carbon sinks. Something you often don’t see mentioned on the energy companies glossy websites.

  5. Lovely.

    I walked right across the through flow country on my LEJOG in June 2007. I think I was lucky with the weather and the midges. (One of my days can be found HERE)

    It is a totally magical place and days that I will always treasure. Incredibly tiring to walk through though and just a little nerve-wracking at times when you find yourself in the middle of a huge gloopy bog…

    The Crask Inn does sound absolutely heavenly.

    • Before doing this little jaunt I think that seeing the map of your route would have given me nightmares Alan. Now having visited I can imagine what a lovely if slightly boggy day you would have had. A brave man to camp on that soggy mattress though.

      The Crask Inn is heaven Alan, I suggest you go up and spend a long weekend there, you would love it.

  6. Lovely pics, Mr B. Although obviously a few dozen huge turbines would provide a bit more visual interest along the route. Seriously though, it’s a fine bothy that should be visited soon before the area is laid waste. Have to echo Andy’s comments regarding Mr Salmond’s myopia. The SNP will keep plugging away with their mission to cover the whole of Scotland – save for the chocolate box views that the tourists come to see – with a bristling mantle of fecking useless turbines.

    Dougal would have been closer to 34 kilos as he was carrying his and Reuben’s food!

    • Reuben just said to say thank you to Dougal for carrying his food for him, it was much appreciated by him (and me!). A lovely bothy that was, I would love to go back and visit.

      I fear that Scotland may be a very different place in 10 years time…………..

  7. That bothy, with the plentiful supply of firewood, looks like it could be a great place to visit in the middle of winter, when the miles of boggy ground is frozen. Maybe not during a period when the temperature plummets to -27°C though!

  8. An Interesting writeup, it looks pretty swampy on the map so I am not surprised it was a bit of a boghop to get there. Looks an interesting area though, shame these areas are being ruined for commercial interest. The old argument of if you use electric you cannot complain does not wash with me. I would rather be rationed in its use than see these areas ruined. Your mate melting his boots reminds me of a friend burning a massive hole in the front of his trousers when trying to do the same.

    • Hi David, it really will be a sad loss if such special places like this disapperared forever, it’s unique. I would be happy for electricity to be rationed, it is in small communities such as on Eigg and the system appears to work there. Bothy fires are obviously dangerous places!

  9. An engrossing account as always and another memorable trip, even if a bit of a bogfest at times!.
    Bloody windfarms proposed there too, sacrilege knows no bounds.

  10. Brave for taking on that route although by your account it didn’t seem to be all that bad?
    Looks a fabulous bothy to pay a visit to.

    • It really was not too bad David, had worse up on Kinder scout in the Peak District. I would recommend a stick though just to make sure the ground ahead is solid! Lovely bothy that appears not to be used very often.

  11. Another excellent read with some nice photos of this big, wild landscape. That bothy looks great and I’m glad to hear good reports of the Crask Inn (and adjacent bothy). There is relatively little information about the far north which makes it challenging putting routes together so all this info is great. The terrain itself also looks challenging – definitely a good idea to beat the same way back and put all that learning to good use!

    • Thanks Nick. The Crask is a real gem of a place, not many like it these days. There is something really special about the far north, a real sense of space and remoteness, unlike any other part of the uk. I want to go back there. Now!

  12. A group of Colleagues and I are fortunate to undertake deer management on land adjacent to the Bothy. Having returned at 22:30 from an overland march we soon had the food going and a roaring fire. The catalyst for the trip was a member of our parties Birthday. The beer and the firewood ran out around 1am, 3 of us “slept” in the wooden bed frames and one on the floor, this space near the fire was closely contested by the dog, each time the call of nature had to be answered. Thank goodness 04:30 and dawn came quick and we spilled out into the cold air yet to feel the first warmth of the 2013 spring. Inside the accoustics provided an experience only to be equalled in the Dyson Hoover test bay, and we left the culprit to it in true cinderella fashion.
    Thanks MBA Hospitality was five star, we left plenty of firewood for the next party of Bothy Vagabonds.
    Mick= May 2013

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