I`ve come a long way so far on this epic journey. When I look up at the map of Scotland on my office wall, and the ever lengthening red felt marker line, I find that I can`t quite believe just how far I`ve walked. Peel Fell, where it all started, way down there on the English Border – and in January, seems like a huge distance ago. And yet it seems quite recently that Charles, Dawn and Gav waved me off at the start. Its been a short 8 months, but a long journey.
Getting to and from each section of this great walk is taking a bit longer each time, as I get further north. In this case it was a train journey to Inverness, with a break of about an hour, and then another train to Achnasheen. Plenty to think about on the journey; a real sense of anticipation, and yes, a bit of excitement too. Thoughts about the weather, the terrain, re-supply arrangements, midges, and much more.
Plenty to look at as the trains head north then west, with the Achnasheen train clattering along at a leisurely pace. Mountains, lochs, forests, mobile phone masts, and wee villages drift by like stepping stones, towards the start of another bash at the watershed. The watershed on the Strathcarron road is about 5km west of Achnasheen, so I hitched, and got a lift without difficulty. Found a fine spot to camp beside a short track leading from the road to the railway. Back in the hills once again, back to the point where I had descended form the hills a few weeks back.
The first three days involved more that their fair share of hag hopping, with a series of hills in between these mega stretches of bog. What these hills may have lacked in grandeur, was more than compensated for in the views they offered in all directions, but especially to the west. The mountains of Wester Ross have a distinctive quality. They rise, almost sheer from sea or fresh water lochs, and thrust with great silver streaks, pointing skywards. And each one stands out almost on its own, giving distinction and individuality.
The light on the lochs captures and then gives back so much of the mood of the place, mixing the sky into the landscape. Loch Maree on the one hand, and Loch Fannich on the other, with the odd glimpse of Loch a Chroisg, parted the hills with shafts of ever changing light.
Midges did present a challenge this time, so I was at pains to find camp sites which would maximise any breeze that there might be. It didn’t work every time.
Major roadworks on the A832 road to Gairloch cast a rough scar across the watershed at the head of Glen Docherty. By the time I got to Fionn Bhein, I was a mere 10 km from where I had started – as the crow flies. In reality I had covered some three times that distance, as the watershed had taken a huge swing west, then east. The vast zig zag had another such mega meander west again from Loch Fannich to Groban.
But before leaving Loch Fannich I noted that this was the third place on the watershed where water is hijacked by human interference, from one side to the other. A burn or two on the west of Fionn Bhein have been channelled into a great concrete pipe which empties eastwards into Loch Fannich, to be added to its Hydro Electric output. A big bit more hag hopping, and then The Fannichs appeared. New territory for me, but I had heard lots of good things about this group of mountains. And as I discovered, it was all true.
The Fannichs gave me two days of walking (and climbing) that was largely devoid of bog; it was clean and firm, with well defined ridges, summits and beallachs. And Oh joy of joy, some tracks. At the magnificent cairn on the top of Sgurr Mor, I stood in silence and wonder, and dedicated it to the memory of the late Kenneth Robertson – from whom I inherited much of my passion for the hills and wild places - my uncle.
Then it was down to the Dirrie More at the head of Loch Glascarnoch, and a rendezvous with my niece Sarah and her fiancé Peter. They had fresh supplies of food for me, but before they handed these over, they treated me to a magnificent Barbie in the hills. Olives, king prawns, steak and vegetables with delicious dressing, fresh strawberries and raspberries with chocolate sauce, and finally, marshmallows and real coffee. Oh, and a fry up in the morning. Slowed me down a bit the next day, but it was a feast fit for a king, and I appreciated it enormously.
Northwards again thankfully, to Beinn Dearg – camped at about 800m in the mist, and those midges that had been daft enough to hitch a lift in my tent duly died of hypothermia. Then the last Munro on the watershed – Seana Braigh. Although it was in mist above the 800 m mark, its a grand mountain, and I enjoyed it greatly. As I made my way down the north end of it, I noticed two figures hundreds of metres below making their way up. I descended, and they ascended in my direction. When we were about 100m apart I got a wave from them, and then I recognised, to my great surprise and delight Rob Bushby and his partner Rachel. They had set aside a whole day of their holiday to meet up and walk some of the watershed with me. I have to say, that on the basis of the rather cryptic information they had about my plans, it was by no means certain that they would find me in this trackless terrain. But find me they did, and it was a huge pleasure to have their company for a few hours. I confess that I prattled on enthusiastically about the watershed, my progress along it, and my experience of this `wild place`.
That night, as I lay in my tent I heard a deer `bark` nearby and felt the hair on the back of my neck rise, at this spooky sound – or was it just my imagination? Next day found me venturing through part of the Cromalt Hills. On the map it looks like a very odd landscape dozens of small lochs, and the contour lines looking like they had experienced some gusts of wind before the ink dried. This is a strange quarter, and clearly something geologically unusual has happened here. I noted in my journal that I must consult a geologist …. The last few hills before reaching the A837 south of Ledmore were gently rounded and fairly solid, which is more than could be said of the terrain surrounding them. Bog!
And the last flourish was a bit of sitka forest that I had to plough through – midges, drizzle and foliage the height of my head, notwithstanding. I made it to the road, and stuck my thumb out for a lift.
`Do you take any music, or a radio with you?` I have been asked. And the answer is that I don`t. It would be a bit of an intrusion, and in any case, I have all the music I could want for in my head. The lilting refrain of some folk tune, or a few bars from a great concerto, or perhaps the more measured pace of a Scottish Psalm tune; I`m never short of a tune. The sound of the breeze in the grasses and heather, birdsong, water lapping on the fringes of a mountain lochan, and silence itself; wild music of the very best.
Watch this space for the next instalment on travels in the far North West.