20 October 2010--Suilven is glowing like a blacksmith's iron in the light of the rising sun as I sit down to breakfast at 8:30.
When I planned two nights in Lochinver, the idea was to take a walk up today if I could. I knew I'd have to be lucky with the
weather, at least. The possibility has seemed more and more unlikely over the past days, and this morning, there simply isn't any
question. There has been snow at elevation overnight, and it's quite cold and blustery now. There is also the matter of my boots,
which are not really broken in yet. And finally there is the growing realization that, while it's not considered a particularly
difficult climb, it's an ambitious one for me, which I should probably not attempt alone--certainly not on a dodgy autumn day when there
are likely to be few, if any, other walkers on the trail. So on to Plan B.
Actually, there wasn't any concrete Plan B until late yesterday afternoon, when I realized that I would have to give up sightseeing for the day and make tracks for Lochinver. There were things I'd wanted to see around Durness, notably the beach at Balnakiel Bay, and I can use the day to backtrack. I'm having a sense of déjà vu--on my first trip to Scotland in 1998, I drove off the Orkney ferry late in the day, foolishly passed through Bettyhill at dusk ("B&B £15" at the hotel), and traveled on through Tongue and Durness until I landed at the hotel at Rhiconich, feeling stupid to have driven through so much of Scotland's north in the dark. So I went back, and ended up having a great day. Here I am again.
I dither around town a bit, fueling up the Skoda (should have topped up in Wick, and knew it--it's 10p more per liter here) before heading out around 10:00. Turn south on the main road to go have a look at Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt. Ron and I passed by here in 2006, in dismal weather, and now a sleety squall hits as I approach; but the sky clears, and I get some nice shots. The snow-dusted mountains make a dramatic backdrop. Headed back north, I drive headlong into another squall, slush accumulating on the road as it rises past the junction for Lochinver. Fortunately, this does not last.
I take a quick look at Kylesku, where the modern bridge replaced a ferry in 1984. There's a hotel by the old slipway, and a former post office, but it would be pushing things to call this a village. Boat trips depart from here in summer, traveling up the narrow sea loch to see Eas a Chùal Aluinn, Britain's highest waterfall. Sounds very Norwegian. Looking back south, there is a striking view of the mountain Quinag. Assynt is awesome.
At Laxford Bridge, I turn southeast on the A838, driving along Loch Stack and Loch More. I'm well along Loch Merkland when I know that I've missed what I'm looking for, a minor road my map shows leading northeast through a narrow mountain pass. Backtracking, I see why I missed it--it looks like a construction site, and is indeed being used for access to one. The heavy vehicles have made a mess of it. I find the site foreman in his trailer office and ask whether it's passable. He looks at me dubiously. "I wouldn't recommend it," he says. "It's not good. Private road. You could do it--people do...the first mile is the worst." That's enough encouragement for me--the alternatives are backtracking to Laxford Bridge or going on to Lairg, neither very attractive. Off I go.
As promised, the first stretch--less than a mile, just to the actual work site--is terrible. The trucks have pretty much destroyed the roadbed, turning it to muddy soup, which has been paved over with very rough gravel. The stones, fist-sized and up, bounce loudly off the poor Skoda's undercarriage as I crawl along. Hope the rental agency doesn't look too closely under there. It is indeed much better after that, but in all honesty, I shouldn't be on it--it's a four-wheel-drive track. It looks as though it was paved many decades ago. But the pass, and the valley it leads to, are glorious, and I can't stop gawking at the snowy peaks around me. Enjoy it, Mr Tattie Heid...you won't be back.
It takes me over an hour to go about ten miles, all the while fretting that I'll come to some impassable spot and be forced to try to turn around. I descend at last to Gobernuisgach Lodge--it's their road, I guess--and from there, it's a very smooth couple of miles out to the public road. In fact, this last stretch of the lodge's road is better maintained than the unclassified single-track it dumps me onto. This takes me due north, through Strath More, at the foot of Ben Hope. I stop to look at the broch Dun Dornaigil (or Dornagil, or Dornadilla, depending on your source), with its massive triangular lintel. The passage is not open, the broch's interior being completely filled in.
Shortly I am at the north coast again, looking at Loch Eriboll, dismayed to realize that I'm barely half an hour ahead of the time I passed through yesterday. I won't get to most of the things I came back up here to see. There is time to walk the beach at Balnakiel, however, and I do that, plotting an early return to this spectacular corner of Scotland. South out of Durness, there is lovely late light in the lower stretch of Strath Dionard, scenery that reminds me of parts of Iceland. Soon I am past Laxford Bridge, retracing my path back to Lochinver, Assynt as awesome in twilight as it is in daylight.
The moon, three days short of full, is rising over Suilven as I walk down to the Caberfeidh. It's been kind of a crazy day--wild weather, wilder landscapes, missed opportunities, a very questionable decision. Wouldn't change a thing.