A wet, wild and windy west coast wander

Hello everyone, I thought it was about time that I did what you’re supposed to do with blogs and that is to write some stuff. So here goes: I’ve enjoyed some wonderful walking excursions in the last couple of months and these I will share with you below.

At the end of October I went on yet another excursion around the wild and wonderful west coast of Jura – accompanied on this occasion by my good-humoured and tolerant friends Andy and Jen. They had gamely travelled up from Brighton at the end of term (teachers both), but our trip was nearly scuppered at the very outset by a hyperactive weather system characterised by gale force winds. We were due to make the crossing from Croabh Haven on the Kintyre peninsula to Kinuachdrachd at Jura’s north-eastern end with Duncan Philip’s Farsain Cruises, but the forecast was so bad he had to cancel the planned crossing with a big question mark over the coming days.

Happily though, the weather lifted the following day and we scurried down to Croabh as fast as my Fiona’s knackered Ford Ka  would carry us. Good old Duncan got us across – bit bumpy in places mind – and we set off around the coast bound for Bagh Gleann nam Muc with just a few hours of daylight remaining.

As anticipated the conditions underfoot were fairly boggy, but we made it to our destination without mishap as the last of the light faded. En route we had walked above the Gulf of Corryvreckan – the 1000-yard strait between the north end of Jura and the isle of Scarba – and yet again I’d missed out on the spectacle of the infamous Corryvreckan whirlpool. The whirlpool only raises its hackles when a flood tide enters the strait from the west and is catalysed by a submerged pyramidal rock known as the Caillich or Hag. In such conditions the Hag can throw up a standing wave of some 30 feet and the roaring tumult can be heard from the Kintyre peninsula.

It was dark by the time we pitched our tents above the shore and there wasn’t much driftwood around for a fire so we broke out the trangias and set about cooking the venison steaks we’d bought  in Glasgow. Given that Jura is home to around 6000 head of red deer this really was a bit like bringing the proverbial coals to Newcastle. The conditions were a bit moist and blustery so we settled down for the night unsure of what the morning would bring.

Dawn arrived calm and reasonably clear. The rising sun lit-up Scarba a deep fiery red as we struck camp and headed off along the shore. As we forged our way along the coast through broken rocky terrain, over large-cobbled beaches and around sandy bays, the buckled, rust-hued bracken was set aglow by the morning light. Andy and Jen seemed suitably impressed by the wild terrain which is chock-full of magnificent geological phenomena – including raised beaches, sea caves, rock arches and quartz-veined rock faces. The herds of deer and tribes of feral goats we startled up at every turn served to emphasise the wild, unpopulated nature of the west coast.

After a couple of hours of weaving our way along or above the shore, the white walls and red roof of Glengarrisdale bothy came in to view across the far side of Glengarrisdale Bay. We followed a sinuous route beneath the rocky cliff faces and emerged in to the bay, crossing the outflow of the river where it fans out across the beach. Glengarrisdale Bay is a wonderful place indeed and I’ve stayed at the bothy here on a fair few occasions, this time however, we just stayed for a bite of lunch before continuing on our way.

Flotsam

For much of the afternoon we kept to a route above the shore, partly because sections of the coastline are impassable at certain points and also because we still had a considerable distance to walk to our intended bivouac site. The weather remained fine and the walking was hugely enjoyable, though the effort of hauling ourselves and our heavy rucksacks over the challenging terrain was beginning to take its toll. Despite the considerable effort involved, my companions remained in good spirits as we dropped down a springy, peat-turfed incline towards the shore once more at Rubha Lagg Losguinn  – which translates rather charmingly as  ‘point of the hollow of the frogs’.

From here we continued along the rock platform below the cliffs, which is  intermittently  covered with broken rocky terrain, festooned with bracken cover and overlaid in places by raised beach deposits of large cobbles. It all makes for an entertaining walking experience, but by the time we emerged on to the sandy shore at Corpach Bay we were all beginning to feel a bit worn out. Happily the tide was out so that we could walk along the wet sandy shore below the awkward beach cobbles. Further along the bay we took to the machair-like greensward just above the beach and continued around to the far end of the bay at Traigh a’ Mhiadair at my insistence that we’d find the best bivouac spot there. Andy and Jen were starting to become restive by this point and if I’d attempted to go any further I’m sure they would have wrestled me to the ground and tied me up. It was a great bivouac spot though, with a burn nearby,  loads of driftwood and importantly, as we would find that night,  it was well sheltered.

We pitched our tents, gathered plenty of wood, got a roaring blaze going and enjoyed a dram with our meal of tuna fandango. A convivial evening ensued until at last we clambered in to our tents as the fire burnt down to embers. After a hard day’s walk a good feed and a couple of drams, a good night’s kip was scheduled, but it wasn’t to be. The wind had picked up and fairly soon the tents were being violently, tugged and shaken by aggressive gusts. I was worried that my one-pole, super-light tent would be shredded and consequently I didn’t sleep a wink. In the morning, Andy and Jen said that it felt like I was outside there tent all night rattling it as hard as I could to stop them sleeping!

Contrary to hopeful expectations, the wind failed to die down before dawn and the morning brought driving rain to add to the gnashing wind. We struck camp and sought shelter in a huge rock arch to brew some tea and eat some breakfast, before contemplating the walk to Ruantallain and the shelter of the bothy there. Thankfully, given the atrocious conditions, Ruantallain was only about three hours walk from Traigh a’ Mhiadair, so we summoned up our collective courage and battled our way out in to the teeth of the wind and the lashing rain. It was actually quite a laugh and an exhilirating walk in many ways because the weather was so ridiculous and there was no hope of keeping dry. We startled up lots of groups of red deer at close quarters, which was quite exciting, though not quite as ‘exciting’ as trying to cross the surging, seething outflow of the Eas Allt an Tairbh below the magnificent stepped waterfall at Sliabh Allt an Tairbh. The heavy rainfall had transformed the burn in to a raging torrent and the water level was very high. Our attempts to ford the burn using boulders and various bits of flotsam and jetsam were laughable really and finally we had to give up and follow the burn upstream until we could find a safe crossing point, which was actually quite easy. Doh!

Continuing on our way, we soon emerged on to the magnificent sandy crescent of Shian Bay and the walking became considerably easier. Shian Bay is a wonderful spot, but there was no lingering here today – the sooner we could get to Ruantallain bothy and out of the weather the better. Leaving Shian Bay behind we left the shoreline route and continued on the slightly elevated ground a few hundred yards back from the coast. This stretch offers some of the easiest walking on the west coast walk through a remarkable landscape of huge raised beaches and peat-dark lochans. The raised beaches along Jura’s west coast are the result of a geological phenomenon described as ‘glacio-isostatic uplift’ – that is, when the ice cap covering the island during the last glacial period melted, the sea level rose but the land also rebounded, though more slowly. The land continued to rise long after sea level had reached its maximum and so formerly submarine features such as sea caves, rock arches and beaches were lifted above sea level.

We continued on our way battling against wind and rain until, finally, we dropped down a rocky slope to the bothy. Startled stags stampeded along the north shore of Loch Tarbert near the bothy and a feathered monster the size of a pterodactyl lifted off a nearby rock.  Unmistakably, there were the white tail feathers of a sea eagle. What a welcome! We gazed after Big Bird for a while before taking shelter in the bothy, getting a brew on and removing our wet gear. Jen rather heroically went for an al fresco wash, but this was one aspect of personal hygiene I felt could wait a while longer in the circumstances.

The weather eased off in the afternoon and Andy and I went for a stroll around Ruantallain’s environs. At this time of year female Atlantic grey seals haul out on to the rocks around Ruantallain to have their pups and we soon encountered several specimens tucked away along the rocky shore, watched over by both male and female adults. As soon as they clapped eyes on us the huge bull seals did the male thing and made for the quickest escape route in to the sea to keep watch from a safe distance. Our presence was obviously disturbing to the seals so after our initial curiosity we withdrew to a less stress-inducing distance. The seal pups are very cute-looking critters and it’s a wonder how fantastically unappealing they become as adults – especially the bulls.

That evening we got a fire going in the bothy and after dinner and a dram we settled down for the night on the bothy’s three ancient, rusty iron bed frames to sleep the sleep of the righteous.

We were up before dawn, packing up our kit and making ready for the walk ahead. We weren’t completely sure how far we’d manage to get during the day, but we were hoping to make it as far as Glenbatrick Bay, which is only two miles across Loch Tarbert as the crow flies, but actually involves around 15 miles of very tough terrain along the north and south shores of the sea loch.

The wind had dropped and the day broke calm and clear, which filled us with enthusiasm for the day ahead. Setting off from the bothy we headed east along the shore. We soon encountered more seal pups and their parents along the shore, many of whom were asleep. One very round, white-furred pup seemed to be having an animated dream and was flapping around in its sleep like a dancing bear on amphetamines. Curiously, we spotted a black-furred seal pup, which was certainly the exception among all the white-furred seal pups that we’d seen. Andy observed that this pup’s mother appeared to have placed the pup amongst some black rocks in contrast to the other pups that were tucked away among the pale quartzite rocks along the shore.

We soon gained the rock platform below the cliffs and weaved a route throw the broken rocky terrain, clambering through notches in the natural walls formed by basalt dikes and following deer and goat paths through the boggy, bracken-covered  undercliff world. This stretch of the coast is fascinating, full of interesting geological phenomena including numerous caves, but the going can be very tough with a lot of awkward terrain underfoot and a few precarious rocky sections to scramble around. Jen had acquired a couple of nasty blisters the previous day and although she kept it to herself it was costing her some pain to manage on the uneven ground.

After a couple of hours we left the shore of the loch where it becomes estuarine, taking to the low hills above the loch where the shoreline turnes sharply north-east. The hinterland can be very boggy here and we attempted to avoid the worst of the boggy ground as we forged a route towards the Cruib Lodge bothy, the first stop on our day’s itinerary. A river crossing had to be made at Garbh Uisge – or ‘rough water’, the name itself suggesting a cautious approach. I decided it might be a good idea to cross the burn higher up than usual because the recent heavy rains would doubtless have swollen the volume of water thundering down to the shore. The only problem when we reached the burn was that it was somewhat wider higher upstream than anticipated. We had to take off our packs and hurl them and then ourselves across to safety on the far side; happily this was achieved with the only casualty being Andy’s very dented water bottle.

We continued on our way and were soon in sight of the deer-fenced tree plantation to the rear of Cruib Lodge. Soon after we arrived at the bothy it became apparent that Jen’s feet were too badly blistered for her to continue, so we drew the obvious and perfectly agreeable conclusion that we’d stay at the bothy for the rest of the day and then walk the last four miles out to the road at the head of Loch Tarbert the following day. The rest of the afternoon was spent washing in a freezing pool half way up a nearby wooded gorge and gathering dead wood for a fire. Late in the afternoon, thick black rain clouds passed over Cruib, the mountain to the rear of the bothy, and as the sun emerged from beneath them, low in the sky, the landscape was lit-up in fiery orange hues as a huge rainbow arched above us.

In the morning, we decided to climb Cruib before heading out to the head of the loch, but as we headed up the mountain’s flank it started to rain again and I received a text message from Duncan warning that gales were forecast for the following day when he was due to pick us up and that we should try to get to Ardlussa – our rendezvous – by early that afternoon. We scampered back down the hill, packed up sharpish and struck out for the head of the loch. This was a wet and boggy old stretch, but we made good time and got to the road before midday. A very nice family from Bolton were passing by, crammed us in to their people carrier and gave us a lift to Ardlussa. When we got down to the small pier in Ardlussa Bay I phoned Duncan only to discover that we’d just missed him as he’d taken another passenger back to Croabh Haven. However, he said that he’d come straight back from Croabh and we should beat the worst of the bad weather and the changing tide.

A couple of pleasant hours were spent brewing tea and watching an otter hunt around the bay before Duncan’s boat reappeared. The journey back was entertaining in a bumpy fashion, but we were glad to get back before the gale-force winds picked up. Driving back from Croabh in lashing rain, Fiona phoned us with the excellent news that she’d got a large casserole pot of goulash in the oven. It’s not a bad old life.

If you enjoyed your vicarious visit to the west coast of Jura, there’s an account of my first visit with the lovely Fiona, posted under ‘Jura’ in ‘Articles’.

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9 responses

  1. Happy snow day! We enjoyed reading the article, brought back fond memories of our adventure on Jura, see you next time you’re in snowy Brighton!

  2. Now that was a great trip report! Looks like we both suffered with the weather. I will have to go back one day and walk the entire west coast. My original plan had been to camp near corpach bay but the mist and rain sent me back to the van! How much did the boat cost from the mainland, much quicker way of getting there rather than the ferries? On a final note did you get covered in ticks too?

    • Hello James, thanks and yes you will have to walk the entire west coast one day. In my humble opinion it’s one of the finest wilderness walks in the British Isles. Duncan Philips of Farsain Cruises at Croabh Haven on the Kintyre peninsula does the run (in October 2009) for £70, which is well worth it if there’s a couple or few of you. Yes, I usually pick up a few ticks – it’s if they’ve been anywhere beforehand that you need to worry. I find taking a friend as a decoy always helps. In a shameless act of self-promotion: I’ve written a guide to walking on Jura, Islay and Colonsay that will be published by Cicerone on May 15th. It contains a very detailed route description for the West Coast walk, which is – as you well know – a bit tricky in places. Anyway, I’ll add your site to my links if you don’t mind James. Cheers.

  3. Hi I had noticed that you have a book coming out! Congratulations on that, Cicerone are among my favourite guidebooks. Just out of interest how did you manage to cinch that deal? Did you approach them with an idea / already written book? I have got an idea for a backpacking guide inside me at the moment, just a thought……..
    Yep I agree that the West coast is rather tricky in places, I had horrible visions of slipping down a cliff and never being found. you have been added to my blogroll.
    James

    • Hello again James, re the Cicerone guide: I think if you’re idea’s a good one and it’s not already been done, then you’re in with a good chance. You can obviously write well and that’s a big advantage. I emailed Cicerone with the idea of a guide to the west coast of Jura – I ‘d already written the initial draft on spec – so they had a look and asked if I’be prepared to do Islay and Colonsay as well as more on Jura; which I was and Bob’s your uncle. Tell you what though – it’s a lot of work. I sent the corrected proofs back today and I’m completely jangled. Definitely worth doing, but not an easy undertaking. I look forward to seeing your guide in print. I’d be happy to correspond with you about the whole business by email if it’s any use to you.
      Pete

  4. Pete, you have definately inspired me to think about giving it a go. I have got a couple of questions to ask you that would be more appropriate in an email rather than here. Do you mind if I emailed you via the address you used to comment on my blog?

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