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.


Queensberry Rules?

Myself, The Lovely Fiona and Dougal the Labrador went to Dumfriesshire at the weekend with a mind to do some walking in the Lowther Hills. We’ve walked in the hills around Durisdeer many times, but decided it was time to broaden our horizons. I recalled James at Backpackingbongos extolling the virtues of Queensberry and the nearby bothy at Burleywhag. On consulting Ronald Turnbull’s excellent guidebook to the area, I was convinced of its merits – especially as it provides unrivalled views across the Southern Uplands and across the border to the Cheviots and the Lakeland Fells.

Queensberry at 697 metres is highest of the Lowther Hills and qualifies as a Marilyn, a Donald and a Graham for collecting purposes. It was named many years ago for the Marquess of Queensberry – the local landowner – who in the self-agrandising manner that is so unappealing in the rich and powerful, had the biggest hill in the locale adorned with his pompous moniker. Still, I don’t want to sound bitter.

Saturday morning dawned a little murky, but we weren’t going to use that as an excuse to stay at home. We drove through the fine little market town of Thornhill then followed the sinuous single track road winding its way beneath the whale-backed Lowther fells. We parked up at the small collection of farm buildings and houses comprising Mitchellslacks and set off along the path leading out along the Capel Burn. We noticed a couple of other cars parked up, including a stereotypical Mazda boyracermobile with ‘aerodynamic’ foil and gold hub caps. I’ll let you in on one of my little prejudices: I see someone driving one of these, I instantly, shamefully, jump to the conclusion that they must be a complete twat. It looked  somewhat out of context here, deep in rural Dumfriesshire and I began to wonder if it’s occupants might have headed off to nearby Burleywhag bothy for a weekend of getting wankered. Hmm. Burleywhag is a short enough walk for even the most callow and recalcitrant youth to manage. There has been a problem in recent years with people using bothies – especially in the Southern Uplands – for drinking and drug-taking benders, usually trashing the place in the process. There have been some horror stories of walkers turning up at a bothy off the hill to find the place taken over by lairy hooligans. Backhill of the Bush being the worst example.

Anyway, I filed my concerns away for the time being to concentrate on the business of route finding. We had decided to approach Queensbury via the summit of Wee Queensberry (512m) and so left the main track by The Law, a small rounded hill standing sentinel at the mouth of the glen. In truth the walk up Wee Queensberry was a bit of a ball-ache as the ground is very tussocky, but we gamely battered our way up the flank of the hill looking on to the cloud-shrouded summit of Queensberry. It was looking like those famous views might elude us on this occasion.

There were plenty sheep around so Dougal had remained on the leash, his interest was definitely piqued though. When descending from the summit of Wee Queensberry, I was stepping gingerly sideways down a slippery slope when several woolies were startled up nearby. They ran and Dougal tore off in pursuit, wrenching the leash from my hand. My hold must have been relaxed while concentrating on staying upright. I bellowed after him and tumbled down the slope in time to see him in pursuit of a lone sheep. ‘Oh fuck’ I thought. Dougal had soon caught up with the sheep and, game over, he trotted proudly back towards us. He stopped twenty yards short and sat down with an audible gulp when he clocked our expressions. Fiona called him and he came bounding back, reassured that he wasn’t in trouble. Tricky. He came back, so should you tell him off? He showed no intent to have a go at the sheep, but another time? I felt that this was a lucky escape and not a scenario I want to repeat. I made a series of displeased noises and gestures and we continued on our way – the Hideous Mutt’s leash firmly in TLF’s iron grip.

There’s no way of dressing it up, the climb up the tussocky flank of Queensberry in the murk was very dull indeed. Even Dougal’s tail dropped and he mooched along like a sulky teenager.

The only relief from the tedious uphill slog was the occasional picturesque cairn. Ronald Turnbull advances the theory that the cairns dotted around these parts were built by shepherds who, having finished their work early would build these cairns rather than return to the farm where they’d be given another job, which would detain them after hours.

Whatever their provenance, I thought they were reminiscent of Andy Goldsworthy’s cairns – perhaps the shepherds’ cairns had inspired him? After all, Mr G lives in these parts and several of his sculptural works are dotted around the environs, like this cairn at Penpont:

It was so murky on Queensberry that I couldn’t be bothered to take a picture. We had planned to do a horseshoe taking in Penbreck and Earncraig Hill from Queensberry, but decided that in the conditions we’d just bail out and descend to the glen to have our sandwiches at the bothy. We took a bearing and descended west through the murk.

As is often the case, when you make a descision about your route due to conditions, the murk lifts, the rain goes off and the sun shines as soon as it’s too late for you to change your mind. While this wasn’t exactly the case, when we emerged from beneath the murk, we could see that our putative route across Penbreck and Earncraig was clag-free. Ho-hum. 

It was too late to suggest contouring around to Penbreck to Fiona who was in full ‘lunch mode’ by now. We picked a good line down to the glen and soon Burleywhag was in our sights.

As we drew close we saw a figure emerge from the bothy to have a wee. I suddenly remembered the boyracermobile! Bugger. Would the bothy be full of skanky louts trashing the place and, therefore, would I have to tick them off in my slightly-posh-sounding (I really am not) Home Counties accent, thereby making myself a target for their opprobrium and ridicule?

Two other figures emerged, pulling on rucksacks. Phew! They were leaving – how about that for timing? If the place was a mess I could rail manfully at their despicable behaviour with ony TLF and Dougal as my audience. We met the three lads as they crossed the burn on a rickety bridge. They looked shocking. Pale, puffy-eyed, shifty and – worse of all – one of them was wearing a Rangers shirt. They’d obviously had a bit of a night at the hooligan juice. One of them was pulling a trolley(!) which clinked and clanked with empty bottles and tins. Hmm, Neds with a conscience? ‘Hiya, the stove should still be warm for youse’, announced the one member of the party who still looked capable of speech. We watched them trudge off down the squelchy path and steeled ourselves for a look inside. It was immaculate.

There you go, there’s a parable in there somewhere.

Dougal enjoys the warmth of the stove in the immaculately tidy bothy, so thoughtfully and considerately looked after by the nice young people:

We had our sandwiches and headed off down the path back to Mitchellslacks. On the way we picked up a series of tins, bottles, batteries and packets that was obviously leaking from the lads’ rubbish trolley, but we agreed that it was the thought that counts. 

Next morning, there was a wonderful mist clinging to the valley floor and the low sun lit the trees in golden hues. It looked the more promising day by far. We had decided to drive up the glen along the Scaur Water, surely one of the loveliest places on the entire planet.

We parked up by Glenmanna and enjoyed the rare experience of a path marked with a signpost. We followed the track road through Glenmanna Farm and out along the Glenmanna Burn before climbing along the flank of Peat Craigs on an actual path! 

Searchlight beams of sunshine arrowed through the fast moving clouds, lighting up the valley floor behind us. 

Up onto Peat Hill (455m), ATV tracks eased our path through the tussocky moor grass. Soon we were out along the broad ridge with a wonderful vista of the Nithsdale, Lowther and Carsphairn Hills around us (I think that’s right, James?!).

What a wonderful day it was turning into. Dougal certainly thought so when an inviting lochan suddenly appeared near the summit of White Knowe (463m). Being a Labrador he can’t just jump into every body of water that presents itself, no, he has to retrieve something that’s thrown into the body of water for that express purpose. Other than my lunch there was nothing to hand. Hmm. I soon found a fossilised sheep turd and threw that in.

Dougal needed no further inducement and diligently retrieved the rehydrated turd from the lochan. Good boy!

Luckily for this wee frog, the Hideous Mutt completely overlooked him. Lucky for me too as I didn’t fancy trying to extract half-chewed frog from his jaws.

We continued on our way following the line of a fence along to Ox Hill (472m). The ground had become very squelchy indeed and was largely composed of football-sized tussocks.

Still, the views were grand and we didn’t mind too much. Or rather I didn’t mind too much, TLF and Dougal were looking pensive and not least because lunch stop spots weren’t presenting themselves in abundance.

I chose to ignore their menancing glances in favour of battering on across the picturesquely named Yellow Mire following the fence to the summits of Countam (476m), Fingland Shoulder (486m) and then Blackcraig Hill (500m). Soon enough we were beginning to descend towards Dalzean Snout, with fine views as far as the radar station and masts on the summits of Lowther Hill and Green Lowther to the north.

Arriving above Glenmanna Burn once again we made a steep traversing descent to the floor of the glen and found the perfect picnic spot at some rocks by the side of the lovely wee burn. This cheered TLF and Dougal up immensely and we were soon walking out along the burn to the farm and so back to the car.

It was an excellent outing, but we enjoyed perfect conditions. In murk, wind or rain – or any combination of the above it would make for a hellish expedition. Just so you know.

Keep the campfires burning…

Having read an excellent post over at Selfpowered in which David Lintern recounts his recent epic traverse of the HRP through some of his camping pitches, accompanied by some cracking pics, I was inspired to dig out some photos of favourite camping pitches in recent years for a post of my own. I noticed that many of my favourite pitches seemed to be accompanied by a roaring campfire, so I thought ‘why not have a campfire picture post’, so here you have it.

The handsome lad sporting the Manfur (TM) face muffler (whatever) in the above pic is the famous James Boulter, he of Backpackingbongos – probably the best walking blog in the world. The pic was taken at Harris Bay on the wild and wonderful Isle of Rum earlier this year. This is James and Rich being hypnotised by the same fire a little later:

The following pic was taken at Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris a few years ago when myself and The Lovely Fiona were cycling up through the Outer Hebrides:

There’s something wonderful about a campfire; you pitch your tent, go gather some driftwood or deadwood – depending on where you are – and get a blaze going. A fire keeps you warm during the chillier months, but it provides something far more than physical warmth alone. A campfire also seems to satisfy a primal human need – I don’t know about you, but I always feel more secure, relaxed and happy sitting in front of a fire, staring into it’s dancing heart. Look at James and Rich’s expressions in the picture above – they’re totally entranced. Literally.

Anyway, enough of this hippy nonsense, here’s some more pics. Here’s a couple from Shian Bay on the Isle of Jura – one of my favourite wild camping spots:

Here’s a few from winter trips in the Romanian Carpathians, when temperatures of -20C meant that a fire was absolutely essential in my book:

I fancy putting up a few more campfire pics if anyone has favourites that they’d like appended to this post. Email Jpegs to me at go on…

Whippet up and start again

Whippet whipped into a frenzy on the Ettrick Hills

Saturday morning, myself, The Lovely Fiona and the Hideous Mutt set off for a daunder around the Ettrick Hills accompanied by Young Finlay and Graeme Devo. Graeme is a whippet more usually known simply as Devo. ‘A non-usual name for a whippet’ I hear you chorus and can only agree. Graeme suits his moniker though and was so named, as many of you will already have twigged, in honour of the song ‘Whip It’ by the eponymous lampshade-wearing American punk wierdos. Young Finlay is Devo’s homey.

That’s the introductions dispensed with.

So we parked up at the south-eastern end of the Talla Reservoir and set off up Games Hope, following the old drove road alongside the fast-moving burn.

There was a lot of water thundering down the glen for obvious reasons given the recent weather and we were unable to cross over to the lovely bothy, which is a mile or so up the glen. I’m sure there was a bridge over the Gameshope Burn here the last time we passed by, but there wasn’t one any longer.

We squelched our way along the left bank of the burn sure that we’d be able to cross higher upstream. The plan was to make for Gameshope Loch then climb Din Law before taking in Cape Law, Hartfell Rig and Hart Fell. However, the burn was a frothing tumult and opportunities for crossing weren’t presenting themselves.

We were soon presented with the minor challenge of crossing a burn feeding into Gameshope. We weren’t going to get across with dry feet so I gave TLF a piggy back across the calf-deep burn and Young Finlay carried the water-shy Devo across. If only I’d taken some pictures!

The dogs had been leashed because of the woolies around, but we came to a sheep free stretch and let them off for a wee while. Joy was unconfined as they tore up and down and back and forth. Dougal is never, ever going to catch Devo, but attempting to do so on a regular basis has made him without doubt the fastest Labrador in Scotland!

We schlepped across the wet and springy morass of the appositely named Crunklie Moss until we were opposite Loch Burn, flowing down from Gameshope Loch. We looked for a crossing point, but the burn was just too deep, too wide and too fast flowing. The bed of the burn also seemed full of awkward boulders and pebbles. We weren’t getting across so we did what we had to do: change of plan.

We decided to launch ourselves up the steep and tussocky flank of Great Hill, a good old fashioned slog if ever there was one!

At the summit (774m), Finlay decided to demonstrate his prowess at canine rodeo:

The weather looked rather brooding over to the south-east, so we didn’t feel so bad at having to change our route.

We continued on our way, skirting around Donald’s Cleuch Head then perching on the collapsed remnants of the dry-stane dyke along the ridge for a spot of lunch. The dogs tried everything from abject pitifulness to  cold-eyed menace in an attempt to win some scraps, but we weren’t having any of that nonsense.

Off we set again along the ridge, taking in Firthybrig Head before descending precipitously into Talla Nick then climbing steeply up the other side to Lochcraig Head (810m).

The view over Loch Skeen from the summit is rather fine.

We dropped back into Talla Nick before continuing on a rising traverse around to Moll’s Cleuch Dod (785m). This is the view into the glen of Talla Water from Talla Nick:

As we climbed toward Moll’s Cleuch Dod, the sun put in a welcome appearance from behind high, scudding clouds.

Once on the ridge, we continued along in the lee of the dry-stane dyke towards the top of Carlavin Hill (736m).

The view back up the Gameshope glen with the burn and loch lit by the afternoon sun:

It was an easy and very pleasant walk out along the ridge in the sparkling afternoon light and soon enough we found ourselves beginning to descend along the dyke as the Talla Reservoir came back into view.

We were fast running out of hill yet still had 300 metres to descend, this could mean only one thing: we were going to have a very, very steep drop down into the glen. Sure enough, we were soon looking down a very steep hillside indeed.

Finlay and Devo brace themselves for the descent

We teetered down alongside the tumbling March Sike burn and all made it down without mishap. Other than the descent and the failure to cross the Gameshope Burn, this had been a remarkably uncontroversial day out on the hills.

The drive back through the rolling Southern Uplands was rather lovely and we were all feeling rather relaxed – especially Dougal who had a very comfy cushion for the journey home.

Dining from nature’s table with the Hideous Mutt

At the end of last week, myself, The Lovely Fiona and the Hideous Mutt set off for the wonderful isle of Islay on a mission, which we hope will soon come to fruition. While we were there we thought we’d take advantage of the opportunity to enjoy some fresh air and even fresher water.

We had decided to camp by the lovely beach at Sanaigmore – see pic above – on the island’s Atlantic coast, but before we embarked on our top secret mission we thought we ought to have a wee dip in the aforementioned ocean. There’s a very fine and sheltered bay just along the coast called Port Ghille Greamhair that’s ideal for a skinny dip.

When we arrived above the bay, a huge grey seal was lounging around in the shallows, but it swiftly buggered off when confronted by two naked middle-aged loons and their Labrador crashing into the icy waters of the bay. It was bloody freezing and I could only stand a minute before removing myself swiftly to the beach once more. Fiona and Dougal were having a whale of a time though, careening back and forth across the bay exhibiting a fine display of multifarious swimming strokes, well, breast stroke and doggy paddle anyhow. How that Labrador learned breast stroke I’ll never know.

Much invigorated, we set off on our mission, returning several hours later to set up camp. The forecast was not good, but thus far the evening was very pleasant and we cooked venison burgers on the trangia, which we washed down with a bouteille of Chateau Poop du Naff. Very pleasant. A sunset would have been nice, but as often happens, the Hebridean evening sky built itself up to an impending pyrotechnic display of oranges, reds and purples only to fizzle out in a damp, smoky grey squib.

Anyhow, here’s some teaser pics of writesofways new bomb proof tent. If you can guess the make and model, Mr Alan Sloman, there’ll be a prize in the post!

After a blissful night’s sleep, we woke early to the steady patter of rain on the fly sheet. Heavy rain was forecast for the day so, seeing as it seemed to have arrived, we decided to abandon our plans to walk out from Bunnahabhain and camp beyond Rhuvaal Lighthouse  on the north-west coast in favour of heading along the sound of Islay to the shelter of An Cladach (only the one ‘d’, James, Armin) bothy instead. Decision made, we drove off to Dunlossit. By the time we arrived, the rain had gone off. Hmm. The forecast had been bad so surely the weather would soon take another turn for the worse?

Unfortunately, the weather only seemed to improve, which was rather annoying, especially as I had waterproof trews on. Bah!

The Lovely Fiona skips elegantly across the outflow of the Abhainn Gleann Logain

Dougal was particularly enjoying the walk along the shore as it presented opportunities to roll in a very dead seal – yeuuchh! – and scoff a gannet’s head. Removing said item from Labrador’s mouth was made all the more unpleasant owing to the bird’s recent demise.

Various other body parts and poos of a variety of avia and fauna were also enjoyed by the hideous mutt before we arrived at the bothy. Once there, we got a brew on and Dougal took the opportunity to practice his thermarest surfing technique.

As the weather had continued to improve, Dougal and I went for a saunter along the shore while The Lovely Fiona stayed home and painted her toenails.

It wasn’t long before Dougal had found a sun-dried dogfish to eat, boy did he enjoy that!

The only problem being that he then walked round for the next few days going ‘hack, hack, hack’ every few minutes, presumably because of a bone stuck in his throat. That’ll learn him. Not.

During our 24-hour stay at An Cladach, we were impressed by the number of CalMac ferries steaming (so to speak) up and down the sound. Here’s the new MV Finlaggan coping admirably with that pesky incline.

The Finlaggan is registered to Glasgow, but was built in Gdansk. The Clyde shipyards were once the world’s pre-eminent shipbuilding centre…

The evening turned out lovely. So much for the doomy gloomy forecast. A pleasant evening was spent around the fire, munching further venison burgers and drinking litres of tea.

As night fell, so the wind picked up. By morning it was a very wet and windy scenario outside the bothy. Dougal was not impressed.

We eventually braved the outdoors and went for another wander along the shore, it was then that Dougal made another tasty discovery. This one was so much worse than seal, gannet or dogfish though. It really was quite bad. So much so that I was prompted to leave a note in the bothy book:

Do not poo upon the shore,

But walk 100 yards or more,

Then saunter carefully into the bog,

And leave it there,

Your morning log.

That dog will eat anything.

Semi-geodesic tart

The above picture is a fabulous greengage tart that The Lovely Fiona made a couple of weeks ago. It was lovely. The reason it appears here is because I have no other relevant pictures to accompany this post and it feels sort of wrong to have a post without pictures…

What this post is actually about is the small victory scored by writesofway the other day when he took the broken ruins of his Terra Nova (boo, hiss!) tent back to Cotswolds in Partick from whence it was purchased a couple of years back. Anyone who read the earlier posts about my Terra Nova (boo, hiss!) Voyager XL being blown into the sea on the lovely isle of Canna and the subsequent rubbish treatment I got from Terra Nova (boo, hiss!), will be glad to learn that the folk at Cotswold refunded my hard-won cash immediately.

The area manager happened to be in, he had a look at the tent  and identified the torn out peg tape on the ground sheet as a failure in the manufacture of the tent. He was aghast that having ‘inspected’ the tent themselves, Terra Nova (boo, hiss!) failed to replace the tent, which was beyond repair.  I’ve given Cotswold my extensive correspondence with Terra Nova (boo, hiss!) and they’ve said they’ll take the matter up with them. Thanks Cotswolds, that is good customer service.

We needed a replacement tent so we immediately reinvested our funds in a shiny new one. The criteria being that it had to be a spacious and robust 2-person(+1 Labrador) job. So we purchased a two entrance, 4-pole semi-geodesic number that you could drop a bomb on. It weighs a whole kilo more than the XL, but I’m happy to carry the weight, secure in the knowledge that this little beauty is going to stay put when pitched, even in a stiff wind. I think sometimes the whole lightweight thing can go a bit far, in fact I might start a new blog entitled ‘backpackingheavy’ or somesuch.

But actually I won’t, because from this day forth writesofway declares itself an officially ‘kit-free’ walking blog. Hurrah!


Mad dogs and Englishmen…

Myself and The Lovely Fiona have been staying in Wales this past week and we were visited at the weekend by intrepid outdoorsman, James Boulter, who popped across from Nottingham for a couple of days’ walking in the Welsh hills. This was a good combining of resources – we supplied the borrowed accommodation and James pitched in with a couple of excellent routes. Aside from the Pembrokeshire coast, the Brecon Beacons, the Glyders and the Carneddau, I’ve done very little walking in Wales, so it was good to be able to tap into James’ extensive knowledge and enjoy the unusual experience of being led on a couple of walks for once.

I’m expecting James to do a post on the walks – maps, eloquent descriptions, excellent pics etc – in a few weeks’ time so I’ll just post a few pics and a general description for now – before I recount a startling event that myself and James witnessed on Sunday towards the end of our walk on Arenig Fawr.

On Saturday we set off for Blaenau Ffestiniog from our base in the Tanat Valley; this was a leisurely drive as we were stuck behind a tractor driver who would surely have pulled over to let us pass if he knew how much we were actually enjoying the stately pace and the opportunity to admire the splendid scenery all the better…

Having parked the motor at Tanygrisiau, just outside Blaenau Ffestiniog, we set off into the cloud-shrouded Moelwyns and entered a haunting landscape of long-abandoned slate quarries and the crumbling edifices of the old quarry works and barracks. The weather certainly seemed to suit the environment.

Our route took us past the remains of the Cwmorthin Quarry along the edge of Llyn Cwmorthin and up a steep track past an enormous slate tip and on to the desolate ruins of the barracks at Rhosydd Quarry.

We stopped for a bite to eat and watched the low cloud billowing around the summits of the surrounding hills. Another pair of walkers appeared, looking slightly uncertain – like extras from central casting who aren’t sure that this is indeed the right film set. They exited stage right and we set off shortly after – it wasn’t what you’d call a typical August day, weather wise.

Our route contoured around the flank of Moelwyn Mawr, initially from the north-west, following a vague path across boggy ground. We passed the dammed outflow of Llyn Croesor and were soon looking down on the remains of Croesor Quarry and across to the summit of Cnicht – ‘the Welsh Matterhorn’.

We descended to the old quarry works then contoured around the hill once again, following the course of a dry stone wall before picking up a broad, level path that had once been a tram track. Far below to the north-west, Porthmadog gleamed beneath the low bank of cloud flowing up and over the Moelwyns.

We ambled along the track, scurried over a slate tip and rejoined the tram path a little higher up the flank of the hill.

We continued around to just before Bwlch Stwlan – the pass between Moelwyn Bach and Moelwyn Mawr – then launched an assault on the western ridge of the former. This was tough going as the ground was steep, soft, wet and springy – a bit like trying to climb over a series of very damp matresses! Once on the ridge it was a straightforward climb to the summit on a faint path. As we descended, the same two walkers from central casting that we’d encountered earlier appeared from stage right, making for the summit of Moelwyn Bach.

We descended to Bwlch Stwlan and decided to continue up along the sharp ridge of Craigysgafn to the summit of Moelwyn Mawr. It was a stiff old climb in a real pea-souper. The views would have been great, but hey, it was a grand walk anyhow. James habitually subjects his poor wee Staffie, Reuben, to a bizarre form of humiliation which involves getting the hapless dog to perch on trig points to have his picture taken. I felt it was only fair that Dougal should  demonstrate canine solidarity by doing the same…

Back down the hill we headed, emerging below the swirling cloud cover, making for a path skirting around the southern flank of Moel-yr-hydd.

The path was vague in places, but we kept on track and just before arriving at the old quarry on Craig yr Wrysgan, we passed a smallish cave entrance and heard voices emanating from within. We weren’t not going to have a look, so in we went. The entrance opened out into a massive cavern and we could see figures with head torches moving around. Dougal was unsettled and barked at the people – who I assumed were cavers – so I stayed back with him while James and Reuben went for a closer look. There were a lot of people in there, James reported,  all with tinnies or bottles it seemed. Was this the local ‘party cave’? We thought we’d leave the folk to it and continued on to the quarry.

Our descent on a tip of loose slate was interesting and fairly rapid. We were soon back at Cwmorthin and followed the track along the river and down to the car park. It had been a grand walk and the weather hadn’t detracted from our enjoyment one jot. It actually seemed to enhance the austere beauty of this rugged, post-industrial mountain landscape.

The following day, myself James and the dogs set off for a walk on Arenig Fawr, which is around eight or so miles west of Bala. Having parked near Arenig Quarry, we walked back along the road for a mile or so to pick up the path by Pant-yr-Hedydd. The path climbed steadily up through heathland being grazed by sheep.

Ahead of us, a couple were yelling at their dogs a lot. It seemed that the dogs were very interested in the sheep and were running around off the leash. Reuben and Dougal were also off the leash at this point, but we were keeping them close. Reuben is a well-behaved, obedient pooch and James had no problem keeping him to heel despite the wooly temptations all around. Dougal is still a puppy and I thought it good practice to keep him close, off his leash for some of the time, to learn to resist the urge to chase sheep. He was pretty good and when he did briefly bowl off after a couple of woolies, he came back sharpish when called back. There was clearly no intent to chase the sheep down and I thought no harm there, good to get him taught not to chase sheep as it will make both our lives easier when he’s full grown. It’s not always apparent that sheep are around when you’re on a hill and if your dog see’s one before you, you want to be sure that they’ll not chase them or that they’ll come back sharpish when called if they set off after one. The alternative is not good.

Anyway, we followed the path around to the tiny MBA bothy near the outflow of the Llyn Arenig Fawr reservoir before crossing the outflow and continuing on our way.

We followed the ever-steeper path up the Y Castell ridge, catching up with the two people and their dogs in the process. The people were Dutch and very friendly, unlike their dogs – a Jack Russell and some sort of Alsatian cross – the latter pinned Reuben to the ground, but we laughed it off and continued on our way.

We battered our way up to the summit ridge to enjoy the truly panoramic views across the whole of Snowdonia. The cloud had lifted off the summit of Arenig Fawr and we were very pleased with our timing.

Some other walkers turned up while we were enjoying our sandwiches and they were followed by the Dutch people and their dogs. The feller asked me to take some pictures of him and his wife and then he insisted on taking some pictures of myself and James. We finished our pieces and set off on our way once more.

It was all downhill from here, literally at first as we descended along the ridge to the saddle, and then metaphorically as – half an hour later – we watched a grotesque scene play out in the distance.

Around a kilometre away, back up the ridge we’d just descended we heard barking and saw the Dutch people’s dogs thundering along the flank of the mountain in pursuit of a sheep. Surely, I thought, the owners will call the dogs off – the dogs will pull up, turn tail and head back to their masters having had their fun. But no; the dogs kept up their pursuit, catching the sheep and bringing it down. I pulled out my binoculars and James and I watched the scene unfolding. High up on the shoulder of the hill a tiny figure called  to the dogs who remained utterly heedless of their master’s imprecations. The sheep struggled to stand and attempted to flee the dogs; they pursued and brought it down again. Again the sheep struggled away from the dogs again they bought it down; a cacophany of snarling barks tumbled across the head of the valley towards us. Why is the feller not running down there and getting his dogs off? Still he stood about 750 metres up along the flank of the hill, an occasional call bereft of conviction hanging on the air.

The sheep tumbled like a child’s rag doll over a low cliff and down a steep scree slope, legs akimbo, pitching over and over before finally coming to rest. Surely the poor beast must be dead. The dogs pursued the carcass down the slope and kept up a hoarse and incessant chorus over the broken remains.

We resolved to get down the track to the road as fast as we could to alert the farmer. I think we were also a bit fearfful that our own dogs might be taken as the culprits – two dogs on the hill, one being a Daily Mail-styled ‘devil dog’ and all. Two walkers were ahead of us watching the whole business from the foot of the scree slope. We conferred with them and watched as the poor beast still moved weakly. There was nothing we could do, so we beat our retreat.

Eventually we got back to the road and flagged down a local man who sped off to alert the farmer. It felt a bit grim, but we were convinced that not reporting the incident would be a cop out. We don’t know the outcome, but I’ll bet those Dutch folk will wish they’d kept their dogs leashed. I know I will if I ever have the slightest doubt.

Terra Infirma

The picture shows two tents pitched beneath Coroghon Mor on the beautiful isle of Canna. The picture was taken late one evening at the very end of May this year when I visited the island with Fiona, Dougal and our friends, Clare and Sarah. Both tents were mine – a Terra Nova Voyager and a Terra Nova Voyager XL. I pitched both of them.

It was a blowy old night in the tents and it was still very windy the next day when we went for a bracing walk along the high cliffs around the island’s coast. It was, however, a long way short of storm conditions otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to undertake our walk along the exposed 200m-high cliffs. When we came back from our walk one of the tents – the XL – had blown into the sea, the Voyager and a Crux two-man tent pitched nearby were unaffected; thankfully our possessions were rescued by the lovely Julie McCabe. Julie and her partner, Stewart Connor – the island’s NTS warden, loaned us sleeping bags (ours were wet) and a cheapo Eurohike tent, thereby rescuing us from our predicament. That night the Eurohike survived a windy night where the £500+ XL had given up the ghost.

In my opinion the tent blew away because of the combination of its larger (than a standard Voyager, for example) profile and its lightweight build. Arguably the tent’s lightweight, titanium pegs are also inadequate to withstand a strong wind. The XL is sold as a four-season tent and claims to have ‘great stability in windy conditions’. It doesn’t.

After two months of correspondence – emails, letters, phone calls – during which various employees of Terra Nova have claimed that I must have failed to peg the tent out properly and even that I should have used pegs other than those supplied (!), I have been offered a 35% discount off a replacement, which I declined. My insistence on a 100% refund was rejected in an email sent this afternoon. They’ve lost a customer, but they obviously don’t care about that.

I’ve always rated the Voyager and I want to be able to buy British products where viable, but I can’t accept such poor treatment from Terra Nova. I don’t have a lot of money and losing an expensive tent like this is a bit of a blow. What a shame that Terra Nova don’t care.

A murky walk around the coast of Muck

Muck can be a little awkward to get to from the other Small Isles and I’d had trouble trying to fit it in to the itinerary along with Canna and Eigg. I have to admit that I saw the prospect of visiting Muck as slightly annoying – a bit of a detour just for one walk that didn’t look that interesting.  Muck is very small – even for a Small Isle – it’s possible, so we discovered, to walk around the little critter in its entirety in four or five hours. You can probably see what’s coming – another one of my ‘how wrong can you be?’ posts. How wrong can you be? Muck is very small, but a more idyllic wee island would be hard to find.

We set off from Eigg on the Shearwater, the wee ferry/island cruise boat that sails out of Arisaig. There were a few tense moments as a doomsaying scaremonger was spreading the untruth that the Shearwater was fully booked and then Fiona mislaid her purse etc. But in the end it was all fine, purse found, plenty of space on the boat.

The crossing was very enjoyable; we stopped out in the middle of the Sound of Eigg as the skipper thought we might see some dolphins, but they were a no show. Within an hour we’d arrived at the pier by Port Mor, Muck’s harbour and main settlement.

We headed straight over to the north coast of the island – less than a mile – to pitch our tent on one of the loveliest informal camp sites you could wish for. There is a permanent yurt for hire and a composting toilet, a wee burn for your water and magnificent views of the Rum Cuillin. A friendly family from Southport were staying in the yurt, but ours was the sole tent.

Having pitched, we headed back to Port Mor…

…and made a beeline for the cafe/craft shop to refuel with an outrageously good and incredibly cheap herring salad before starting our circumperambulation. By the time we left it was nearly 3pm!

The plan was simply to walk around the coast staying as close to the shore as natural and man made obstacles allowed. We headed initially south-east out of Port Mor, through a few stock gates and fences onto the low-lying coast. This was easy enough, contouring along on a faint, narrow path avoiding boggy bits, crossing the odd fence, leashing Dougal when sheep or cows were in the vicinity. In truth the coastline of eastermost Muck isn’t all that exciting, but what it does have is some fine views on to Eigg and Rum.

We continued on our way and within an hour we were looking down on our campsite and beyond to the tide-separated islet of Eilean nan Each – Horse Island.

The skies had darkened and a soft, silvery light underlit a blanket  of  low cloud sailing in from the north-west. Would our circumperambulation be scuppered by rain and poor visibility? We’d have to take our chances. Continuing on, we briefly joined the road to Gallanach Farm, which sits above a lovely bay with a fine beach.

We walked around the bay and followed a path up along the coastline again to walk out along the peninsula of Aird nan Uan.

Looking back on Gallanach Bay

The tide was in, so we’d not be able to walk across to Horse Island this time. Next visit for sure.

We retraced our steps back along the peninsula and then continued along the coast, passing this rather splendid private bothy – must be a hassle mowing the roof.

Continuing on in the gathering murk, the coastline soon began to take on a different character. The landscape was beginning to look a lot craggier and we soon found ourselves climbing up along the high cliffs of Muck’s west coast.

This  was exciting stuff, the coastal landscape of high cliffs and rugged shoreline in the murk made for something of a contrast with the earlier part of the walk. It would have been great to have some views, but at least it wasn’t raining.

We continued, following a narrow path along the agreeably springy-turfed cliff tops and eventually found ourselves beneath the looming bulk of Beinn Airein, rising to 137 metres above the cliffs at Muck’s south-western extremity. The top was shrouded in a mantle of murk as we climbed steeply up the hill’s south-western flank near the cliff edge. This added to the excitement of what had turned into a surprisingly engaging walk.

However, a little too much excitement soon appeared as we arrived on the summit to find the place packed tighter than a can of corned beef with frisky cows. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but by ‘normally’ I mean when we went walking before we had Dougal. The big scary Labrador is fwightened of cattle. He is cowphobic, or bovinophobic (natch) to give this terrible malaise its pathologised name. Dougal chooses to express his fear of cattle by barking gruffly and persistently while emitting clouds of tangible fear odour – a combination that whips cows into a wild-eyed murderous frenzy.

Removing ourselves and Dougal from this fraught situation – atop a high cliff in dense murk surrounded by hostile cows – provided a tense couple of minutes. We eventually descended beneath the murk having out-manouvered Dougal’s bovine nemesis

Continuing along the coastline, we had a few more stock fences to negotiate and we were soon feeling fairly knackered. Behind us the clag finally lifted from Beinn Airein. Mysteriously there was no sign of the cows…

We decided to cut directly across the peninsula south-west of Port Mor to return directly to the village. This probably didn’t save us any time or effort as our cross-country route was rough, boggy and tussocky in places. However, we had soon joined the track winding down to Port Mor and we decided to call in at the Port Mor hotel for a pint and some crisps. We’d been told that the hotel’s restaurant was fully booked, so we were happy to sit in the garden enjoying the view out over the harbour while nursing our very welcome pints of ale. We were a bit sweaty and dirty anyway and didn’t want to put anyone off their dinner.

The hotel owner seemed concerned that we would be returning to our tent unfed and wondered if we might like some steamed langoustine followed by pork curry. Yes, we might like that very much we answered and ordered a second pint each to boot. It has to be said that we weren’t charged a great amount for the fine food we were served. We felt well and truly rewarded for our endeavours. It was a lovely evening and we returned to our tent well and truly at peace with the world.

In the morning it was a bit blowy. Our friendly yurt-dwelling neighbours hadn’t slept a wink as the sail cloth fabric of the yurt was quite noisy in the wind. We’d slept soundly and not heard a thing. We packed up and headed back over to Port Mor in search of coffee.

Fiona and Dougal installed themselves at the cafe/gift shop while I headed off round the peninsula that we’d missed out the previous day. I needed to check out the route and take some snaps for guide book purposes.

Near the end of the peninsula the remains of the Iron Age fort of Caisteal an Duin Bhain (castle of the white rock) sit atop a cylindrical upthrust of volcanic rock standing sentinel above the entrance to the harbour of Port Mor.

Further round the peninsula the coastline is rugged and beautiful and I was glad to have had the opportunity to see it in clearer conditions than the previous day’s.

Having walked the remaining stretch of coastline, I headed back to Port Mor and soon enough we were making our way to the pier to catch the ferry back to Mallaig. All in all it had been an excellent 24 hours on the lovely wee isle of Muck.

The Agony and the Eigg-stacy

Having visited the marvellous Hebridean isle of Eigg, there’s no limit to the cheesy blog post title possibilities. The above is just one of many that sprang to my irritatingly predictable mind. Does the title have any bearing at all on the actuality of my experience while on Eigg? Well, I really liked the island, but perhaps ‘ecstacy’ is slightly overstating the case. As for the agony, that came a couple of weeks after the Small Isles trip when I parted company with my mountain bike at high speed, badly staving my left elbow and shoulder and removing sizeable areas of skin from left knee, hip and elbow. Twelve days later and I’m on the mend though I can’t move my shoulder freely and it hurts quite a lot. Poor me. I feel lucky not to have broken anything, though. When I was 25 I bounced when I came off my bike, now that I’m 45 my elasticity seems to have dwindled. Ho hum.

Anyway, where was I? Staying in a yurt on Eigg actually – one of two bijou canvas palaces rented out by Clare and Phil at Eigg Yurts; this proved to be an excellent choice as the weather was ‘mixed’ and having a big space for four of us and Dougal the dog with an excellent solid fuel stove to boot was the business. Besides, we’d already had one tent blown away on Canna…

Clare and Phil are the milkwoman and milkman of human kindness – to paraphrase Billy Bragg – and two people less-arsed about profit margins you’re unlikely ever to meet. If you’re going to Eigg, stay with them! The yurts are strategically located half way between Galmisdale – where the ferry arrives/departs and Cleadale, the main settlement on Eigg’s north-west coast.

Anyway, we managed to pack in a creditable amount of walking despite the weather and on our first evening we wandered the mile and a half down to the beach at the Bay of Laig near Cleadale to enjoy the spectacle of the sun setting behind the isle of Rum. Well, it didn’t actually set as such, it sort of slumped into the cloud, but there was a pleasing pinky-purple blush in the sky, which seemed adequate reward for our modest endeavour.

Next morning dawned bright and clear, which was an excellent result as we planned to scale An Sgurr, Eigg’s highest point at 393 metres. The summit ridge is a huge prow-like pitchstone monolith, which is instantly recognisable and visible from afar. With sheer cliffs on three sides, it  looks a daunting prospect from below.

We followed the waymarked path up through the dense heather and boggy terrain and as we drew close to the imposing east face of the Sgurr, I realised that it reminded me of something.

Yes! That’s it, the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you know, the one Richard Dreyfus makes out of mashed potato… Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming apparently. Like the Sgurr, it’s volcanic in origin though this little beauty is a ‘volcanic neck’ (?!) whereas Eigg’s pitchstone eminence is a volcanic ‘plug’. The things you learn off t’internet.’s Tower National Monument

Anyway, back to Eigg; the path skirts around the sheer north face of the Sgurr, which becomes more impressive the closer you get…

The path gains the summit ridge by way of a gully, which is fairly steep, but undemanding.

Where the path emerges onto the spine of the ridge, there are fine views on to the wee isle of Muck.

A ten minute daunder along the pleasantly airy summit ridge and we’d reached the summit trig point. The views are remarkable and we were lucky to have a relatively cloud free day.

Looking back across Eigg’s hinterland to the isle of Rum

Dougal keeps an eye on everyone as we head back down the ridge

Rather than just retracing our outward route, we had decided to look into the viability of a route down off the Sgurr to the ruined village of Grulin, which sits above the south-east coast. Having descended from the ridge back down the gully, we were beneath the north face of the Sgurr once again. Instead of continuing east back down the path, we struck off north-west on a vague path making for Loch nam Ban Mora. Though a little heathery and boggy, the going wasn’t too bad and Dougal soon saw an opportunity to strike another pose.

We continued around the shore of the loch to its outflow then struck across country to pass by two very beautiful lochans beneath the Sgurr.

We now had to find a route down to Grulin below us; the map and what we could see suggested a traversing descent rather than heading straight down the rough and steep heather-covered slopes. This we did, but it was still an awkward descent on account of the height and density of the heather. We made it down with out any scrapes and we were soon amongst the ruins of Grulin township.  Grulin is actually two villages that were abandoned in the the mid-19th century; many families left after the 1847 potato famine, then 14 families were cleared from the land to make way for sheep in 1853. It’s a beautiful and poignant spot.

We sat amid the ruins and ate our sandwiches in the perfect early afternoon stillness before heading back along the path towards Galmisdale beneath the impressive south face of the Sgurr.

Perched in splendid isolation along this stretch of coast is a wee bothy that is now apparently someone’s holiday home. What a lovely place for a billet. It’s all done out very tastefully inside – if slightly Laura Ashley-esque; we had a good ogle through the windys.

We continued back along the track bound for Galmisdale and having encountered only one other walker all day we were suddenly confronted with the bizarre spectacle of a group of 20-odd Scandawegian tourists on a guided walk, many of whom were kitted out for Spitzbergen in the depths of winter; I know the weather in Scotland can be shite, but…

Soon enough we arrived back in Galmisdale and enjoyed beer and carrot cake – a fine combination – at the very excellent Eigg community cafe. The place was thrumming with Eigg-folk and visitors and very lively indeed. The 20-odd Scandawegians soon turned up and Deuchar the cafe’s resident black lab tried to hump Dougal – it was all happening! The tour group made ready to catch their ferry and, not without a slight tinge of whatever the Scandawegian is for schadenfreude, the tour group leader informed us that the following day’s forecast was for gales and driving rain…