Sat, Sep 15, 2018

A stormy Sandwood Bay

The first reports of snow in the Cairngorms were coming through shortly before I set off up the north west coast with Penguin, heading for Sandwood Bay and the bothy at Strathchailleach for a midweek visit. We’d decided to leave it until later in the year to avoid the hell of social media zombies moving from site to site in search of likes and shares.

A good run over the Dirrie Mor on the twisty road but the toilets at Braemore junction were a sad sight. Last time I’d been here they’d been well looked after. Now they were ruinous and surrounded by rubbish, a sight that will only become more common throughout the highlands. Stopped for a coffee at The Ceilidh Place in Ullapool with the bookshop a favourite. I never tire of browsing and buying it has such an eclectic range of books. Leaving Ullapool the rain poured out of a leaden sky and I discovered the endless roadworks on the way into town had deposited a load of crap on the windows and the wipers scraped uselessly against the forest of invisible nodules glued to the glass. A noisy, scrapey journey ensued and we pulled into Insheigra in a black cloudburst and piled into The Old School as Penguin had a moment of genius. The plan had been to camp on the beach at Sandwood tonight and bothy tomorrow but why cook when we could dine at ease? As we were tucking into our hearty repast, sipping wonderful coffee and watching the rain hammer against the windows, we hatched a cunning plan. There was a twin room available so we ordered a couple of beers and settled in for the night! Beyond the misted windows the world greyed out and night descended on a wild and windy landscape of rocks and roaring seas. Not a night for camping on the beach.

The restaurant was pretty full, good to see in early September for such a remote community. No doubt plied with trade from the NC 500 and folk wanting to ‘Bag the Bay’ for their followers’ titillation. The room was a sea of flickering blue faces as couples, even whole families, finished dining and retreated to their respective online worlds. Everyone appeared to be staring intently at their phone, swiping, tapping, updating, consuming, liking, sharing. We seemed to be the only two engaged in real conversation, in the real world. It caused me to scratch my wizened and much travelled chin, to wonder whether the world of robots had already arrived and we were in a room full of robots addicted to data.

A hearty breakfast next morning saw us on our way to the car park at Blairmore, thankfully not too full of NC 500’ers Facebooking the Bay. An easy walk along the excellent path (thanks John Muir Trust), the moors alive with scabious dancing in the breeze, watched by a raven on the far fence post and as we reached the bay the sun came out and the temperature shot up. Once on the beach I got the stove going amid the roar and crash of Atlantic breakers as a group of sandpipers rummaged along the high water mark. The air was full of noisy nature and salt sea spray with only a few people dotted around. The river crossing was fun, boots off and up to our knees in water skidding barefoot on slimy underwater rocks. We could have crossed at the outlet where it was sand but that would have meant some serious climbing to get up the cliffs on that side plus the river was pretty impressive after the previous night’s storm. Torrents of sandy water were roaring down to the sea. Great white breakers working their way upstream as the sand underneath was built up by the current then collapsed, resulting in a crescendo of white water rapidly diminishing to a smooth swish until the next bank of underwater dunes were created and demolished by the flow. As we dried our feet on the other side we chatted about Tom Patey who first climbed Am Buachaille sea stack across the bay, surrounded at that moment by a surf laden cacophany of gulls and breakers. We ruminated on whether the couple who had given up trying to cross the river did so because it looked too dangerous and that we were madmen, or whether we looked hard bitten mountaineers for whom no mere torrent was an obstacle and therefore was likely to be too much for them. We decided on the latter before heaving our loads up the sandy hillside, heading for the bothy.

Reaching Lochan nan Sac I surprised an otter that surfaced a couple of feet in front of me, smooth-shiny fur flat on its wet body. It looked at me and dived into the shallows, a line of mud blooms surfacing, then a line of bubbles out into the loch, like a creature from Michael Bentine’s Potty Time where it resurfaced, glanced back and gave me a quick look before disappearing into the deeper water. It made my day, along with the dancing scabious, remnants of bog asphodel and the little spider tents built at the junction of two strands of grass stuck together by the little creature. Such wonderful sights.

Round the corner from the loch I decided to set the map (yes a paper map with a real compass!) as all we could see was wilderness and a bloody great fence destroying the atmos. The bothy was nowhere to be seen. I knew it was around here somewhere and the map confirmed it. We just couldn’t see it until we’d crossed the fence and slurped and slooped through the gloop for a bit, after which its shiny roof appeared down by the rushing peaty river.

Strathchailleach bothy

A chap was sat outside, waiting for his chance to get across to Cape Wrath (the military were destroying things) and we had a pleasant chat before getting the tents up. A pleasant night ensued of cooking, eating and chatting round the peat fire until late into the night. In the room where James McRory Smith lived there appeared to be a catflap in the window and outside a large stone provided what would have been a step up for Mrs. Bothy. Perhaps she was the cailleach? To me, normally bothies are shelters I occasionally pass or spend time at, they don’t have much appeal for me, preferring to camp or bivvy but seeing the catflap provided context I could identify with. An old man in front of the peat fire on a winter’s night, his cat curled up on the hearth after a hard day’s hunting and sleeping. It really made me think and made the bothy that bit more special. My day was made a little more by the thought of puss-puss living here. A wonderful place for a cat to live.

Strathchailleach bothy

The walk out was very wet as the rains came down and the cloud hid the Cape Wrath peninsula behind us. No sign of the otter on the way back past the loch but at least the river had gone down a bit and I just tramped across in my boots. As we headed out along the track, lots of internetty people were heading to the bay, one of whom stopped to ask whether it was worth it! I was pretty sure they were the tripadvised ones and not your usual gangrel type as one looked as if they’d escaped from Love Island while another actually appeared to have been tangoed!

Sandwood Bay

We started holidaying up this way in the 1970s at Durness and I love the area. The overriding memory I have of Durness is after a certain time in the early afternoon the traffic stopped and the roads became deserted. All was silent apart from the wind and the roar of the sea, no doubt helped by the Kylesku ferry stopping for the day and the flow of northwards traffic from the coast dwindled and faded to nothing. The land slept. Now, there’s the bridge in place of the ferry and the NC 500 crammed full of special interest groups trying to punch each other out of existence on the single track roads while the locals try to get home. A few stalwarts mine extra likes and shares by peeling off at Rhiconich to Bag the Bay but the majority appear to race round the 500, outcompeting each other and providing a never ending backdrop of noise and crass behaviour. If that wasn’t enough, near a beautiful and remote bothy on the north coast, they’re building, of all things, a spaceport. As a friend recently commented, the outdoors, the people, the landscape, the culture of self sufficiency and the reliance on our wits which we grew up with, is gone. But I intend to find it again, in places with no mobile signal, no people and no internet, where the myths of the Uraisg live on.

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