North to Sutherland

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.

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25 responses

  1. Sounds like a great trip to an an area I’ve never walked other than some of the better known mountains in the far NW

    The little known private estate bothies are superb as you usually get them to yourself. My mate GM has a few secret ones up his sleeve in the Monadh Liath where we’ve spent some happy evenings although I think one of them is now under water!

    As you say the canines are the stars once again. Wish they had those dog-packs when I had a canine companion all those years ago

  2. Hello Andy, it’s a lovely region indeed. The estate bothies were great as were the three MBA bothies we visited on this trip, one of which is about to have a windfarm built on top of it, much the same as the Monadh Liath.
    The dog packs might look a bit daft, but Dougal seemed to adjust to it very quickly, carrying 3-4 kilos wasn’t a problem for him and I think perhaps they enjoy having a ‘job’ so to speak.

  3. Gorgeous pictures, Pete. It’s tricky not to come back with great pictures in Sutherland though!

    Andy – I think you’ll find that the ‘secret’ Monadhliath bothy just missed out on a dunking when they built the reservoir. It’s a tricky one to spot on the map. 🙂

    • It was a terrific walk we did across the lonely western tracts of the Monadh Liath to the bothy. Didn’t do an overnight but we had a mighty fine lunch and little fire in the stove (melted my gloves trying to dry them out). Glad it survived the flood, fabulous area now spolit I imagine 😦

  4. Looks lovely. I’m interested in the idea of bothies – the only one I’ve ever stayed in was Greg’s Hut – might pick one or two up on the SUW eventually! I just love the doggies in their backpacks. Dougal’s the image of our Tilly, only he always appears very calm whereas Tilly’s a maniac – is that just a trick of the camera do you think?

    • Definitely a trick of the camera, Chrissie. I showed Fiona the pics of Tilly on your blog yesterday and we both agreed on the resemblance, long, elegant muzzle and almond-shaped eyes. There’s some cracking bothies along the SUW, though a tent gives you options.

  5. Very lovely indeed Mr Edwards, brought it all flooding straight back. I will soon post almost identical photos but with you starring in them instead. I do wish that I had not been snapped wearing my yellow base layer. There I was thinking I was all streamlined but in reality I have moobs and a beer belly. I rarely drink beer. Boo.

  6. You’re being a bit harsh on yourself I feel Mr B, you’re a fine figure of a backpackingbongoist. I’m very much looking forward to your version of events, so to speak…

  7. thats a fine looking loch it really is. Loved reading about both these mini backpacks of yours and James’, whilst listening to my aggro neighbour shouting abuse at a passer by downstairs. Bit of a contrast!

    • Hello Mr Lintern, I had a really hardcore aggro neighbour for about eight years when I lived in Finsbury Park. He used to play wall-shakingly loud voodoo rock n’ roll all night while getting wankered on Rum and Special Brew, then he’d bowl out into the street in the early hours and roar abuse in a thick Jamaican accent, often demanding that we call the police. Sometimes the cops would come and cart him off – I used to find myself wishing that they’d reintroduce the old throwing detainees down the stairs routine at Stoke Newington nick…

      • laff out loud I did at your reply! I have engaged in a spot of non-queensbury rools fisticuffs in a weaker moment wif said neighbour many moons ago. It was like Eastenders, since we both have more than a bit of white-trash/sarf larndun chav in us (him more than moi, naturally – some of us aren’t ashamed of our education in spite of background!) – very ugly. I promised to be a good boy and not rise to the inevitable bull ever again after that. I share your feelings on the landed ones, but I am learning to temper my temper. Anyway, i like a drop of Red Kite, and I like a good blog, so having both on the same post is a grand thing altogether. And you’re off again soon, it would seem? How do you do it?!

  8. I ‘do it’, Young David, by being a feckless freelancer, ‘self-employed’, which is a bit of a euphemism for being work shy. The upshot is that I get to go away when I want, but I’m permaskint as a result. TLF fortunately has a more robust approach to earning a living…

  9. nice one, I’ve yet to tackle these 2 Grahams as I’ve been putting them off for ages, but now have a renewed mindset about them after seeing the bothies. I think a wee plan is formulating in my head…

    • I’m sure your plan is a good one, David. I particularly liked the ‘Stables’ bothy between Ben Armine and Creag Mhor, a lovely, lonely spot.

    • Hello Martin, thanks for your kind words, though James as ever has written a real corker about the trip. It is remote and far away, even when living in Glasgow. It was a two day journey each way for James – put me to shame…

    • I think myself and TLF will be heading back to the Crask for a couple of nights this winter, Alex. Might also walk into the Loch Choire bothy, spend the night, then walk out over Ben Klibreck.

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