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.