2007 - 2020

Bealach Horn

The weather’s improving, the days are lengthening, and the lockdown continues. Many who love to walk and climb in the Scottish mountains are missing the opportunity to do so. There are, of course, more important concerns at this time, but nonetheless, the lack of access to the hills is keenly felt. The following is an extract from a book-in-progress about a month-long walk in October in the North West Highlands. It’s offered here in solidarity with all those who are looking out windows and poring over maps, tracing routes they’ll be glad to one day walk.

Walking down to Loch Glendhu, ‘the loch of the black glen’, the tidelines and bladderwrack on the shore are unexpected. It’s a sea loch, but from its head it appears to be landlocked. At the other end, it joins Loch Glencoul then flows through a narrow strait, or kyle, from the Gaelic caol, into Loch a’ Chàirn Bhàin, and then the open sea. The Kylesku Bridge elegantly spans the strait.

I’d walked all day in an inland landscape of moor and ridge – the great interior of Sutherland. So it was strange to meet the sea and smell the tang of it. When I reached the shore, the sun had dropped below the ridge south of the loch, though sunlight was still on the crags above me. The surface of the loch was static and black. A red fishing boat baited lobster creels towards the far end, while nearer, a pair of eider ducks puttered around close to the shore, the male with his brilliant white feathers grabbing all the attention.

Glendhu Bothy was in shade, its windows blank. Inside, it was well kept but cold. According to the visitor’s book, it’d been days since anyone had stayed. I lit a fire in the hearth, using dead wood I’d gathered on the way down the glen, and was grateful for the warmth of it. The room glowed as though the bothy shared my gratitude, as though a fire in its hearth restored it to being a home. Throughout my journey, whether in bothies, clearings in woods, or on the shores of lochs, the fires I lit never felt intrusive. Instead, at night, in the dark of a depopulated glen, creating a glow of light and warmth, cooking food over it, was like a small act of restitution: each fire a reminder that we’ve always belonged here. After dinner, I rolled out my mat and sleeping bag in front of the hearth and was asleep before the last of the wood burned down.

I woke early, packed, and after tea and porridge, climbed away from the shore, following a deer path through rusted bracken, curving up around the slopes of Beinn a’ Ghrianain – named after the ruined settlement of Grianan, the ‘sunny place’, that lies below it to the west. Or perhaps it was the other way around, with the settlement named after the mountain. Either way, Grianan was a pre-Clearance township that is now no longer marked on Ordinance Survey maps. A red deer stag postured above me on the hill, antlers aloft, grumpy at my interruption to his morning. I acknowledged his magnificence, and promised to keep my distance if he kept his.

Loch an Leathiad Bhuain lay before me, ‘the loch of the hillside of the harvest’, most likely referring to the slopes where the people of Grianan harvested peats, and adjacent to it, Loch na Creige Duibhe, ‘the loch of the black crag’. Such place-names are simple, descriptive, and instructive. They’re also waymarks for when we forget and need guiding back into relationship with the land, like the cairns of stones you find on mountain paths: there for when the mist comes down. Ben Stack, from the Norse stakkr, meaning ‘steep’, peeped over the hill ahead and Quinag, from the Gaelic cuinneag, ‘a milking pail’, rose behind me – it was magnificent, its two northern peaks dominating the view to the south of the kyle.

A seam of hard rock puts a step in the land between Loch an Leathiad Bhuain and Loch na Creige Duibhe, with a single narrow waterfall dropping between them, like a bowl of water being carefully tipped into another. Both lochs were deep blue in the sun. I crossed above the waterfall, hopping from stone to stone. A dipper bobbed on a rock on the shore below me, his white bib gleaming.

When I began to plan my month of walking, this was the journey I dreamed: passing between two lochs on a bright morning, steering a path around crags and peat hags whose edges were scabbed with moss; climbing a ridge in the company of deer – a string of hinds ahead of me, as though I was herding them.

From the top of the ridge, mountains rose all around. To the north I could trace my route to the Bealach Horn, the high pass between Arkle and Meall Horn. The meaning of Arkle is contested, though most likely it’s from the Norse ark-fjell, ‘flat-topped hill’. Meall Horn is a mix of Gaelic and Norse which gives ‘the hill of the eagle’. To get there, I had to climb down off the ridge I was on and pass through the village of Achfary. Walking the road into the village was the first time in days that I’d felt the jolt of tarmac.

Achfary is incongruous. With its trimmed hedges and mown lawns, planted specimen trees and picket-fencing, it looks like a southern hamlet that has been spirited to Sutherland. The village is part of the Reay Forest Estate and owned by Hugh Grosvener, the 7th Duke of Westminster. The young Duke, still in his twenties, inherited the 96,000 acre estate from his father, as well as a £10 billion fortune and several other estates and properties, including most of Mayfair and Belgravia in London.

I don’t know Hugh Grosvener. He’s maybe a lovely man. It’s his position as laird that concerns me, and the power gifted to him through our land-ownership system. Walking through Achfary, I thought about the settlement over the hill at Grianan, and the remains of the eighteen buildings that are there: homes tumbled back into the land, the stones that made walls/become cairns, as Aonghas MacNeacail writes of a similar settlement, in his poem ‘gleann fadamach’. I wondered whether there’d still be people living at Grianan, that ‘sunny place’, if they’d owned the land themselves back in the 18th century; if they’d had the power to make decisions about their own lives and futures, the way that the people of Assynt and Eigg and Knoydart and Ulva, as well as others, now have (and there’s a fine and growing litany to counter the old Proclaimers song).

I saw no one alive in Achfary, despite it being late in the morning. For me, its neatness was soulless, there was none of the clutter and clatter of messy, noisy village life; but maybe the people who live there would tell me different. On the outside of the estate office, there’s a marble plaque in memory of the 1st Duke of Westminster, who died in 1899. It was erected by his foresters and servants to ‘express their deep respect and regard’. In the redundant telephone box nearby, a defibrillator has been installed.

A wren cut across my path, a chink of light on its beak, before disappearing into the gorse on the other side of the track. A blustery wind put white caps on the waves being blown across Loch Stack. From a distance, scree on the slopes of Arkle looked like sand or filings, heaped in skirts around the mountain’s base. The bothy at Lone, from the Gaelic lòin, was locked. It stands below Arkle by a bridge that crosses the river from which it’s named: Abhainn an Lòin, ‘the river of the pool’.

One summer, in my twenties, I hitched to Torridon. I climbed Slioch and then walked north to spend the night at Carnmore Bothy. Carnmore is basic, just the one long room of a stone byre, owned and maintained by the Letterewe Estate, with a tin roof, earth floor, and no fire. It was late in the day by the time I arrived and the midges were fierce outside. Inside, an old man was cooking bacon and beans on a meths stove. After we’d said hello and eaten our respective meals, the old man and I sat across from each other and swapped whisky and roll-ups. He was entirely at ease with himself and spoke quietly with an Aberdeenshire accent, his sentences laced with Doric. That evening he shared a wealth of bothy lore.

This was before the internet and the Mountain Bothy Association website, before bothy bibles and location guides, so that the only bothies I knew were the ones I’d heard of through word of mouth, or else discovered whilst walking. I dug out from my rucksack an OS Travel Map that covered all of northern Scotland. We spread the map between us and, with the light fading, lit a candle to see by. The old man donned reading glasses and marked small crosses on the map with a pencil, reciting names of bothies and remembering visits to them; recommending one for its proximity to a good trout loch, another for the availability of firewood or as a base to climb a particular mountain, or simply for the beauty of its location. He marked crosses for MBA bothies and those that were maintained by estates, like Carnmore; he marked others too, that were special, hidden, their locations shared with discretion.

It was an evening of initiation and I understood it to be so: the exchange of whisky and tobacco; the elder and his knowledge; our shadowed faces in the candlelight. I still have the map, tattered and stained, Sellotape holding the folds together: a treasure map; and though I’ve no memory of the old man’s name, I’ve often had cause to be grateful to him, trusting his recommendations, while accepting that some may be out of date.

So it was with Lone Bothy, one of the X marks on my map. Although it was only mid-day, the wind was strengthening and I’d considered stopping for the night there. I could spend a restful afternoon pottering by the river and climb the Bealach Horn in the morning; but the estate’s decision to keep the bothy locked removed that choice. It seemed unnecessarily mean to me, to close a bothy that had been used by walkers for years. I pushed on, aiming to reach Strabeg Bothy that evening instead.

It was a hard push. Approaching the bealach, three hinds watched me from the other side of a stream. Their coats glowed chestnut in the sun as they turned and cantered away. My legs had none of the spring of theirs, but I was heartened by the sight of them. I stopped and filled my water bottle from the stream, at a place where it tumbled into a small deep pool. The water was absolutely clear. I drank my fill and ate oatcakes and cheese.

There’s little soil or turf on the stone fields of Arkle – only a thin, patched pelt. To the north, the long ridge of Foinaven, ‘the white mountain’, was sharp-edged like a sand dune. The Cambrian quartzite of the ridges and summits around me gleamed white in the sun, othering them, as though they were mountains from somewhere else, some higher-altitude, desert place. The wind unsteadied me as I crossed the high point of Bealach Horn and the low sun stretched my shadow. I was exhausted and elated to be there. In the gap between Foinaven and Arkle, I could see the blue of the sea, and to the east, in the far distance beyond Ben Hope, another mountain: Ben Loyal, the northern pivot around which my month’s walk would turn.

Comments (17)

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  1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Thanks very much indeed for this, Dougie. It is particularly enjoyable during this wearisome lockdown to mentally follow your treks through the high hills and under the wide sky. Your interest in, and explanation of Gaelic place-names is also much appreciated. Forgive a moment of pedantry (it is not my reason for commenting, but since I am here now anyway) — the spelling should be ‘Leathaid’ not ‘Leathiad’ in the name ‘Loch an Leathaid Bhuain’.)

    Your article brought to my whimsical mind the highland mountain setting of much of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book ’Kidnapped’. Again, those suffering from cabin fever might be interested in having a go at it. It can be read online for free here:

    https://www.gutenberg.org/files/421/421-h/421-h.htm

    And for readers literate in Irish, a recent Irish translation (An Fuadach) can be purchased (€15) here:

    https://leabharbreac.com/en/products.html/an-fuadach

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Thanks Fearghas, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and I agree that Kidnapped is a fine read. Also a favourite of Bella’s editor, I believe: one of these days we’re going to follow David Balfour’s footsteps across Mull together…

      And thanks too for the spell check on ‘leathaid’, which is indeed the correct form. The tricky thing when writing about Gaelic place-names is that so often the OS maps use incorrect spellings, but then they become the ‘known name’, as is the case with Loch an Leathiad Bhuain. I guess there’s also the tricky business of Gaelic orthography, and the late adoption of standardised forms. Being very much a learner, I tend to stick with what’s on the map, despite the flaws. All the best, and here’s to surviving the lockdown! Dx

    2. John Monro says:

      Kidnapped, a great read, from a truly great, and nowadays under-appreciated writer; too easily dismissed as a writer for youngsters by some. I downloaded all RLS works on my Kindle for some trifling amount of money, and have read almost all of them. My favourite RLS? Too many to list, but this paragraph might be one. It’s this extract from his first unpretentious little book, “An Inland Voyage”, where RLS and his friend, Sir Walter Grindley Simpson, ship over to Belgium on a ferry their two small canoe yawls, RLS calling himself after his little boat, Arethusa, and his friend after his boat, Cigarette. RLS nicely prefaced his modest volume with this worthy quote “After a good woman, and a good book, and tobacco, there is nothing so agreeable on earth as a river.” Shades of Ratty in “Wind in the Willows”?

      Anyway, the two have been cruising down some of the meaner canals and rivers of Belgium, and take lodging for one night in a an unprepossessing auberge in an equally unprepossessing village called Pont-sur-Sambre. Eating a rather meagre and particularly tough portion of beef, he uses this unexceptional experience to make a rather nice point about poverty and wealth.

      “There is no doubt that the poorer classes in our country are much more charitably disposed than their superiors in wealth. And I fancy it must arise a great deal from the comparative indistinction of the easy and the not so easy in these ranks. A workman or a pedlar cannot shutter himself off from his less comfortable neighbours. If he treats himself to a luxury, he must do it in the face of a dozen who cannot. And what should more directly lead to charitable thoughts? . . . Thus the poor man, camping out in life, sees it as it is, and knows that every mouthful he puts in his belly has been wrenched out of the fingers of the hungry.

      But at a certain stage of prosperity, as in a balloon ascent, the fortunate person passes through a zone of clouds, and sublunary matters are thenceforward hidden from his view. He sees nothing but the heavenly bodies, all in admirable order, and positively as good as new. He finds himself surrounded in the most touching manner by the attentions of Providence, and compares himself involuntarily with the lilies and the skylarks. He does not precisely sing, of course; but then he looks so unassuming in his open landau! If all the world dined at one table, this philosophy would meet with some rude knocks.”

      Worth repeating: If all the world dined at one table, this (the prosperous man’s) philosophy would meet with some rude knocks.

      There have been far too many balloonists crowding the skies around this planet recently, so one very welcome effect of the chaos (and the misery and heartache for so many) of this present pandemic is that our skies, until recently near obscured with such balloonists, have been suddenly emptied as they are brought down to earth with a mighty thump – a particularly appropriate ill-wind comes much to mind. It is to be hoped in the future efforts to re-inflate the economy that these balloons are spared; they should remain firmly on the ground and their pilots required to eat at the same table as their fellow men.

  2. Ian Wight says:

    A beautiful offering – definitely whets the appetite for a direct experience later this year. Thank You!

  3. David McGill says:

    Wonderfully descriptive writing. I felt I was there.

  4. DWMaclean says:

    Thank you for this. I lived at Kylesku in the early 70s before the bridge and before mains electricity. It’s beauty still haunts me 50 years on.

  5. Rory Banyard says:

    Lovely piece of writing Dougs! Definitely a great time to be sharing this!

  6. Wul says:

    That was good! A breath of fresh air.

    Thank you Dougie.

  7. George Farlow says:

    As a former regional councillor for North, West and Central Sutherland, we tried hard to keep Achfary School open but we understood that if the estate no longer employed folk of child rearing age, the game was a bogie. That applied from Stoer across to Kinbrace through Drumbeg, Unapool and Altnaharra. The curriculum for excellence required peer communication, which was always difficult without decent broadband. Ofcom could have helped by allowing companies to share infrastructure with councils. I hope the communities can take over the buildings somehow. Renewables and rewilding haven’t really helped stem depopulation. My memories of the Summer Walkers still bring a smile. Dougie, did you go to Elphin School?

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Thanks George, I agree. Once the schools close it’s hard on the community. My wife and I nearly moved to Drumbeg when our kids were coming up to primary school age. I’d been offered a good job there, but when we found out that the school had closed a few years earlier, and that they’d have to take the long bus trip to Lochinver every morning and evening, we didn’t take the job.

      Didn’t go to Elphin School. Only a visitor to Sutherland I’m afraid, though I’ve relatives in Caithness and used to come up every summer to stay with them, and have been tramping around the hills lots as an adult.

  8. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    This is the kind of writing which inspired my late father-in-law to take up hill walking in his mid-50s. He had been a farm worker all his days, and although the Aberdeenshire hills, and later, the Perthshire hills were always in view, he had always preferred the looking to the walking and climbing. On an early visit to my wife-to-be’s family home in the early 1970s, I decided I wanted to walk across the nearby Ochils and my mother-in-law-to-be insisted that he accompany me, since I was a Glasgow keelie and did not know the countryside and might get lost!

    We walked through Dollar Glen and then back up and over from the Hillfoots side into Perthshire again. He was hooked!

    From then on, every weekend and every summer holiday was spent tramping the hills further and further from Perthshire.

    PS Aonghas MacNeacaill, was a contemporay of mine at Glasgow University. We were not pals, but were occasionally in the same company. He was well=known and liked as Black Angus!

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Thanks Alasdair. Never too late to start! It was the Campsies for me, with my dad, and he was still climbing Munroes into his 70s.

  9. Paddy Grant says:

    Thank you for this beautifully descriptive and evocative piece. Especially on re reading it I felt quite emotional. Some of your places I have been & some I’d like to go to – but when?!

  10. Stewart Bremner says:

    Thank you, Dougie. It’s been a long time since I was out on the hills and you fair took me back there and away from our current worries. A much-needed escape and moment of calm. When we are able to move about again, I need to get out there.

    1. Dougie Strang says:

      Thanks Stewart, and all of you, for the positive responses. It’s always a joy to know that what you write resonates for people. I suspect a lot of folk are committing to all sorts of adventures for when the lockdown lifts. See you on the hills!

  11. John Monro says:

    Thanks so much for you descriptive writing – it brings back so many memories of Munro bagging and walks and holidays in Scotland when I was a child and later a medical student in Glasgow and later still when I inflicted the Scottish weather on my New Zealand wife. . I now live in NZ but Scotland’s my spiritual home. Indeed, I had booked a flight to the UK to travel at the end of March, and my three daughters who live in London had booked a week off for us to all walk the West Highland Way (in early April!!) However, not to be – the coronavirus fixed that, and it fixed too the planned fifty year re-union in Glasgow for our medical year of 1970. . Five years ago I walked from Canterbury to Iona – at least almost all the way, about 750 miles all told, from end of April to early July – a sort of personal pilgrimage to this spiritual destination. After getting to Glasgow (my alma mata) from Edinburgh by walking the Union and Forth and Clyde canals, I walked the first part of the West Highland Way but branched off at Tyndrum, where I cheated (just one of three cheats) and took the train to Taynuilt (there was no obvious walk except along a busy main road) and then along a minor road to Oban. Yes, walking is so much more than exercise – indeed a French philosopher has written a book about it, and so many famous artists, scientists , writers and composers have gained their insights with rain, wind and sore feet.

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