I got to spend the last week in Sutherland, the ‘south land’ of the Norsemen who came from the north. I’d somehow not managed to visit Sutherland during my 45 years on Planet Earth – the last five of which I’ve lived in Glasgow – until now. I think I’ll be back before I’m too much older though.
The week was spent in the company of James Boulter of Backpackingbongos fame and our dogs, Dougal and Reuben. My wife, The Lovely Fiona (TLF) joined us for the last few days. James knows the region well and it was a real treat to be along on three 2-3 day backpacks led by him. Usually when I go walking in company I’ll have done the planning myself, so it was a very pleasant experience to just turn up and have someone else taking care of the routes.
Excellent routes they were too. How about this for lazy though? James will doubtless be posting his accounts of the trip over the next week or two, so there’s little point in me producing a substandard facsimilie of the same. Though it’s kind of interesting to see a shared experience through different eyes, so what I’ll do is leave the nuts and bolts to James’ eloquent prose and I’ll just post some pics with a few thoughts about the walks.
Our first backpack saw us park up at the remote and wonderful Crask Inn, north of Lairg, and do a three-day P-shaped route taking in Loch Choire, Ben Armine and two fine estate bothies. Our walk took us through an expanse of almost entirely ’empty’ landscape – nothing so gladdens my heart!
Though the skies were mainly a lowering gunmetal grey for much of the time, the visibility was good and most of the rain came at night. It was good to be carrying a laden rucksack again and this was an experience we didn’t want the dogs to miss out on, so Dougal and Reuben got to carry their own food – talk about singing for your dinner.
A boggy walk to the bealach and then an awesome view down along the U-shaped glen to Loch a Bhealaich and Loch Choire beyond. The mighty bulk of cloud-shrouded Ben Klibreck boundaried our horizon to north and east.
Down we went along a good track skirting above the first loch and then across the narrow isthmus separating the two bodies of water. The bothy roof came into view and we walked around the sandy shore of Loch Choire wondering whether anyone was at home. Rain came on, heavily. Ten minutes later we were pushing open the bothy door, dripping wet. No one home, damp dogs, but a fine wee bothy with the most effective wood stove I’ve ever had the pleasure of drying myself by. After lights out the dogs were restless and sleep was interrupted until eventually they curled up together – next to my head.
The rain had gone off by morning and we set off along the loch side track, enjoying the autumnal colours.
The early blue sky gave way to deep grey as we began the climb south-east away from the loch.
A tough climb to gain the ridge and then a biting cold wind at our backs. The views out across the Flow Country from the ridge running between Meall Ard and Creag a Choire Ghlais on Ben Armine were vast. Beyond the north coast we could make out the coast of Hoy and what must have been Rora Head. I may be wrong, if so – shhh – I like the notion.
We upped and downed then, after a big pull to the summit of Ben Armine, the descent to the bealach below Creag Mhor was a doddle. An argocat track led us to the river we would have to cross to reach the old stables that are now an estate bothy.
We’d taken a gamble and happily the river wasn’t high – the bothy visitor’s book is testament to this not always being the case. A muted peat fire in the stove, a dram and rain on the roof.
The morning was murky, but we left the bothy in good spirits. We crossed our bealach and descended the beautiful glen towards Loch Choire again in improving weather.
A stalk on the hill across the glen, three figures creeping up on a dozen deer who were clearly onto their game. Surely we wouldn’t disturb them from so far away? Turns out we did. Lord and Lady and Head Gamekeeper rolled up to the Loch Choire bothy in an argocat just as we were exiting after our lunch stop. They were very friendly, though they said that if only we’d arrived in the glen two minutes later they’d have had a successful stalk. They were very gracious about this and they took interest in our dogs with their silly backpacks, but I always feel a particular tension in communications between the social orders. I’m a bit chippy.
The weather continued to improve and as we returned along the lochside track, the sun put in an appearance.
It was an easier walk back than out, I felt, but I think we were all a little tired by the time we arrived at Crask once again. We were booked into the Crask ‘bothy’ – in truth a simple wee cottage with a few bedrooms, kitchen, showers and a mighty woodburning stove. The landlord and landlady of the Inn were away for the evening so the bar and ‘restaurant’ were closed, but they’d thoughtfully left us a box of beer. Bottled Black Isle brewery’s ‘Red Kite’ proves that there is good ale to be had in Scotland.
We were welcomed at the bothy by Moffat John, who had the stove going and made us tea. That night we enjoyed John’s company and conversation with a beer by the fire. Shangri-La. The next day we’d be off to Strath Naver.