Posts tagged ‘Sutherland’

November 8, 2011

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.

November 5, 2011

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.

October 30, 2011

A thousand shades of brown in the far north

by backpackingbongos

There is a certain amount of relief in Reuben’s eyes as he lays in his bed this evening.  Finally a day when he is not dragged up a wind-swept mountain or up to his belly in bog.  The car is outside cooling down after a 1,193 mile round trip to Sutherland in the far north of Scotland.  I shudder to think what the final petrol bill is.

A total of eight days were spent backpacking among some really wild and empty landscapes, with an atmosphere totally unique to the far north.  The autumn colours are at their peak up there, I did not realise that it was possible to get so many different shades of brown.  The autumn light shining on all those yellows, reds and browns resulted in a real treat for the eyes.

Two backpacks were done in the company of Pete and our dogs Reuben and Dougal.  On our third backpack we were joined by his wife Fiona (aka TLF).  Three different backpacks enabled us to explore and experience three very different landscapes.  A photograph and a few words from each:

We started off by heading for three days into the vast Ben Armine Forest.  This is a huge sprawling area of high moorland that reminded me of the Monadhliath mountains.  We climbed to the summit of Ben Armine itself which is reputed to be the most remote Graham (for non hill baggers this is a hill between 2000ft and 2500ft).  The view from the top was breathtaking, with the Flow Country laid out at our feet.   The photo above is from the Bealach Easach looking towards Loch a Bhealaich.

Our second backpack saw us heading across the Flow Country itself.  This is a land of huge skies and it was slightly unnerving heading across what felt like an endless bog.  The reward was a lovely bothy at the end of the day.  The photo above is of Pete making use of the argocat track that thankfully went in our direction for a couple of miles.

Our final backpack was for three days amongst the rugged peaks of Assynt.  This is a real primeval landscape, the raw bones of the earth being thrust high into the sky.  The map is a chaos of contours, rocks and lochans begging to be explored.  Thankfully the weather was kind enough to let us climb high and enjoy the views.  The photo above was taken on the ascent of Beinn Leoid.  The Stack of Glencoul is in the middle distance with the mighty Quinag on the horizon.

As time allows I will put up three separate trip reports.  In the meantime I will leave you with my impression of a new bit of gear I took along.  I wore a brand new pair of ‘proper’ leather walking boots.  Eight days of wading through some of the sloppiest ground imaginable and my feet remained dry, comfortable and blister free.  I also did not fall over once.  Was that a deep intake of breath from the back?