the final push

In the focused tunnel vision of the last few weeks I’ve had little time to do much more than eat, sleep and write in a metronomic rhythm which has finally paid dividends. The precious manuscript has been sent off for copy editing, and I’ve just been out for the last ten days tying up a few loose ends. Well a lot of loose ends as it turned out. The list of bothies that needed revisiting grew as I realised how much fact checking I needed, and there were a couple of last minute photo shoots which had been put off, the headliner, visiting the Eagle’s Nest at Mangarstadh on the west coast of Lewis . And again, with the time pressure so tight there was no other option than to hire a car, stick the bike in the back, and bullet up the A9.

First stop Hutchinson, with a quick nod to Bob Scott’s as I cycled by, and then onto the Fords of Avon. Bike parked at Derry Lodge, but following a recent theme, its straight forward to cycle – to the Hutchie at least – with a few obstacles to negotiate. Then it was on to north west, where I had planned to walk in to Craig or Coire Fionnaraich but in the end decide to car camp at the free site by the Youth Hostel in Torridon. Its so easy! Popped into Leckie and Lochivroan the next day (both have a little side entry), and then I had to get my head around the most luxurious overnight of the whole damn business of the book, a single room in the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. Alleluia for my finishing milestone advance! I got quite emotional thinking about how much effort has gone into the project, very much aware that at an earlier stage I’d have been cooking noodles on the campsite, and cycling across Lewis over three or four days. But hey, I knew I deserved a treat, and the Cullen Skink was superb!

There wasn’t any time to really soak up any sense of the intangible Hebredian magic on the schedule, a blustery night in the bothy was shaken off by a quick morning stroll along the strand at Traigh Uige, and there was just enough leeway for a quiet moment at Callanish before heading back to Stornoway. I felt a twinge of regret that I couldn’t contribute to the survivor stories of a battered troop of cyclists that had made it over moors from Tarbet, but in my heart of hearts I knew I would just have cried battling across the island in the merciless westerlies of the day before, thankful that for once I could just motor through it.

The next leg was the real meat in the sandwich, four days fact checking round the bothies of a loose Highland 500, retracing the route of my first cycle trip in the blog back in June 2012. Vivid memories flooded back as flattened the humps and bumps that seemed so epic at the time, I hardly blinked as I reached the bealach under Quinag which had been one almighty effort four summers before, and the steep us and downs before Scourie and after Laxford Bridge passed in an unremarkable blur. Glendhu, Suileag, Strabeg, Achnanclach and The Schoolhouse all received a visit, and the final stop on the loop was one night at Shenavall, walking in with the standard 10 kgs of coal, red wine and a couple of celebratory beers.

Only one more objective left before heading home, finding out what is going on at Ruigh Aiteachain. After crashing with master photographer Paul in Inverness, I made it to Auchlean before nine hoping for some seductive morning light, but the clouds rolled in and I was left with the prosiac task of tip toeing past the eroded moraine undercut by the Feshie in last years biblical floods, and a quick natter with two stone masons on site at the bothy. The north side extension is slowly taking shape, but the guys bemoaned the late start to the build, and thought it wouldn’t be finished before next summer….

the running order in sequence…

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Bob Scott’s

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Hutchie

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view back to Coire Etchachan

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Ford of Avon – my last Scottish MBA… counts as a refuge before anyone takes umbrage about last December’s final  bothy outing…

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Leckie

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an old school bothy with fixtures still intact

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Lochivroan: last bothy visit for the book

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posh but not posh

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Eagle’s Nest, Mangurstadh, Lewis

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first look inside

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cosy

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five steps from the door

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blowy morning

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bright and early into Suileag

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the bothy

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view over to Suilven

The Scottish Bothy Bible

pony track into Glendhu

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bike and bothy

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Strabeg

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I have an out of focus shot of this sink from the first cycle tour in 2012 so had to return (well sort of )

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Achnanclach

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The Schoolhouse

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with classroom

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a no brainer…equation courtesy of Phillip who I met in Inchnandamph and mined for information about his journey north on the Cape Wrath Trail…thanks mate!

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feeling confident that the plan was coming together

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a night in Shenavall

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happy hangout

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a very lucky shot of Shenavall, though I was out for 45 minutes before the sun finally fell over the bothy roof…

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trying not to look like a psycho on the walk out

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impressive erosion on the path into Ruigh Aiteachain

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another fluvial assault course

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stone masons at the bothy fearful for the first frost

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ups and downs

Back on the bike after my flirtation with car hire, returning home last night from a trip to Burnmouth Cottage on Hoy, and a fact finding mission to the Croft House at Loch Strathy. With the weather initially on my side the Orkney leg was a delight, two nights stop-over with my friend Kate, and a floaty day on Hoy, remembering the far off days of my last visit, when the Old Man was successfully scaled, and our four man team basked in front of the bothy fire, impressing a group of youngsters on a school field-trip with tales of daring do. Then with heavy rain forecast for the next afternoon, I steeled myself for a more challenging proposition, a cycle in to Lochstrathy, simply in order to check to terrain of the 15 miles of track from Strathy East. The morning crossing to Scrabster was hassled free, and then it was a right turn towards Dounreay, and on to the handy unofficial camp-site on sandy cliff top above Strathy Bay. Pitched my tent just as the heavens opened and took a deep breath, thinking the last thing I actually wanted to do was hit the track and prepare for a soaking.

Even in the nagging rain the cycle wasn’t too much of a hardship. I still get a real thrill heading into the middle of nowhere, especially up in the Flow Country where it feels like your on the edge of the Canadian wilderness, the sense of isolation increasingly gripping even though I knew this was a quick round trip. And then I got a puncture. Not a biggie in most circumstances, but I was only half way to Loch Strathy, and the worst case scenario would be a twelve mile jog to the bothy and back, and a head down nine miles pushing the bike to civilisation. Or just abort. No, there was no option. When would I have the time to get back? I had no leeway, schedule locked down with an advanced ticket back from Forsinard the following day. And with a tight writing schedule, there was no chance of a return in the foreseeable. Anyway back to the job in hand. Ray was with me in spirit as the rain started clattering down in an intense burst of spite, and the midges began to hone in. Reluctantly I had to struggle into my waterproof trousers just to keep the blighters at bay, and only then able to concentrate on what is normally a very simple task. Found the hole in the inner tube, patch on, tyre pumped, instant deflation. Bollocks. Inspect inside of the tyre, remove stone which has pierced right through the rubber, and apply another patch. Plus a couple to the tyre itself for some kind of insurance. Pump up tyre again and all good. Right. Back on it. Gingery cycled on to the bothy fearful for a slow release of pressure, but eventually it came into view, and with increasing pace and a following wind I made it to the Strathy Inn before the light faded. Sopping wet I must have looked a sight, but I didn’t have a care, eyed the warm glow of the stove in the lounge, and ordered some soup. Book entry: ‘straight forward to cycle’.

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Boulders on the beach at Rackwick Bay you just want to hug and take home with you…

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the Old Man…

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Burnmouth Cottage

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chintzy interior

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ferry arriving at Moaness

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proof that the bike did made it to Lochstrathy!

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camp-site above Strathy Bay the morning after..

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Flow Country close to Forsinard

time’s pressing


Hoping to start writing in earnest this week, and have spent some considerable time assessing what I have left to do my publishing deadline at the end of September. A lot of words certainly, but also a few trips which I have to shoehorn in somewhere. I’ve still got to get to Orkney and Lewis, plus a few more outliers, and realised that I’ve days of time rich travel are over for the moment. The solution? Car hire. Now I know this breaks the guiding philosophy of the blog but needs must, and in my defence, it is the first time in however long that I’ve personally resorted to the evil combustion engine. Even so, scrabbling the money together has not been without its stresses, but this is the culmination of all my endeavours, and I’m not about to blow the time-frame I’ve sign up to just on the point of principle.

So to the weekend past. I’d been invited to a house warming at Cuil Bay, off the Oban road from Ballachulish which would in now circumstances involve a train to Connel Bridge, and then a cycle up the fantastic Sustrans Route 78, part of the Caledonian Way. But with a car as a option, my mind started racing. How much could I squeeze in over the course of 48 hours? Where had I got to get to? Jez this is just so easy! I calmed down after a breathless half an hour, and settled for Doune Byre, Carron, and Taigh Seumas a’Ghlinne in Glen Duror. Neat as it was so close to the party.  And if I had time a visit to a well kept place with a yellow door, which I had agreed with its maintenance crew wouldn’t be an entry in the book. Still ambitious, because I needed to check out three of the routes into Carron, but still doable.

In the end Saturday turned out to be quite a crazy day. Too embarrassed to say quite how I ended up fifteen feet above some tree stumps in the plantation east of Carron, balancing precariously on a windblown conifer trunk, I got the photos in the bag, and made it round to Meoble and Kilraus to suss out the walk in’s to the north and south. Earlier in the day Doune Byre had proved a breeze, though another ‘not suitable for cycling’ like its sister bothy Rowchoich. Parked up after less than 500 yards having learnt my lesson a fortnight ago. Taigh Seumas a’Ghlinne was saved til Sunday morning, and a second excursion up beyond The Bill to took up most of the afternoon.

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Doune Byre

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view south down Loch Lomondside

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shade at Carron Bothy

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quick nip up to Taigh Seumas a’Ghlinne

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up to Glen Sulaig before returning home…

 

 

what would Ray do?

There’s a wee joke I share with my sister when we get stuck in a spot of bother, any temporary crisis, it doesn’t have to have anything to do with being out and about in the hills, which basically revolves around asking the question ‘what would Ray do?’ Ray is of course, the redoubtable Mr Mears, who over many TV series has given reassuring advice and tips to heed if we were ever parachuted into seemingly hopeless situations, whether on the Skeleton Coast of Namibia or in the Sweden sub-arctic. Fortunately most of the scrapes us mere mortals find ourselves in are rather more prosaic, and one such happened over the weekend. Man handling my bike over the rocky shore of old route of the West Highland Way from Rowchoish bothy back towards Rowardennan, my derailleur hanger snapped for the second time in a year. Sigh.

If you haven’t already joined the dots yet, I suppose this is a good time as any to disclose the true motives of my travels over the last four years. I’m writing a guide book. No big revelation I’m sure, though from the very fact that there has had to be a covert sub-plot, shows the sensitivity of the subject from certain quarters of the bothy world. So this explains why I ended up in such a predicament, when any perfectly sane person would have swooshed back along the (relatively) new track to the Rowardennan which now runs high above the loch-side. Unfortunately I hadn’t really considered that this original route along the waters edge resembled an obstacle course, and thought it an easy task to confirm whether it was a realistic cycle for the entry in the book.

The day had started so well. A fine forecast, simple pedal from Balloch round to Drymen on the Sustrans Route 7, and a glorious ride on to Balmaha and beyond, thankful to be bypassing the BBQ’s and bathers but still drawn in by the beauty of Loch Lomondside, marvelling at how close this first showcase of the Highlands was to Sauchiehall Street. Thankful for a simple objective, I sped onto Rowchoish, up and down past the bothy on the forestry track, before doubling back 500m into the relative cool of the regimented pines. After a quick lunch, photo-shoot, and wander down to the water for a gander over to Tarbert, I could almost taste the pint I had so easily earned, and as the first rocky obstacles and stretch of broad walk were swiftly negotiated, I had no notion that my day was about to go pear-shaped.

Looking down at my fatally wounded machine, my first thought was of course, what would Ray do? Shoe-string budget or not, the obvious solution would be to get a taxi from Rowardennan back to Balloch, whatever the cost. The thought of trying to hitch, or beg a lift from someone at the bar was too wearisome to contemplate. But would Ray get a taxi?? Surely not. But not even he would be able to find a miracle cure for the bikes ills, so what other options were there? Shaking the frankly irrelevant notion from my mind, the next dawning realisation was that although I had just passed a remarkably convenient escape route back up to the WHW and a free wheel down to civilisation, if I was to check the route with due diligence I had to go on. Perhaps I had traversed the only difficulties, and could push the bike with relative ease back to the main path? Maybe only cost an extra twenty minutes or so? Ok. Onwards. Nothing worse than writing up the description not knowing with absolute clarity that you couldn’t cycle the route. How hard could it be?

Two miles, and an hour and a half later, I was finally back at the hotel. A total sense of humour failure had been narrowly avoided, but the tediousness of the up and down, rocky scramble here, another set of steps there, had left me exhausted. The anger fuelled adrenaline had got me so far, but to cap a bad job, I’d somehow lost my water bottle from the bike frame. In the searing afternoon temperatures, and with every single stream bed freakishly but inevitably completely dry, I was totally dehydrated, and it wasn’t until my second sip of amber nectar that I could finally laugh it off, and wonder at how I could have possibly made such a pigs ear of a beautiful sun-kissed afternoon. Taxi ordered, I was soon on my way, had the best fish supper of my life at the chip shop opposite Balloch station, and a couple of months later was happy to write with satisfying authority ‘not suitable for cycling’ in the book entry.

And what of Ray? Well it took me a couple of days, but then the solution struck me with a clear sense of the obvious. A canoe. He’s always floating off into the near distance in a canoe. He’d cut down a few branches with his Bowie knife, lash them together with some reeds, and float the bike back to Balloch, which as the crow flies is a good ten miles shorter than the overland route. Taxi indeed. He’d never forgive me.

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looking back down the old WHW path trying not to relive the trauma

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Bluebells and the bothy…

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majestic view looking north up Loch Lomond

its a family affair

Didn’t quite get the weather but a treasured moment at the weekend, when my mum made it to her first bothy. Even at 84 she’s still very active, and made impressively short work of the walk in.  We were in luck as a work party was already settled in for the day, lit the stove and had tea and biscuits at the ready. I had to explain that you didn’t get this kind of reception at every bothy you pop into for lunch! Thanks to Eileen and Alistair for buddying us along.

Arrival at Over Phawhope

quick, quick, slow

For quite a while now I’ve been conscious that I wanted to put something back into the MBA, and idly thought I’d end up on a work party sooner or later. More recently I realised that maybe now was the time to actually step up and make a full commitment to being a maintenance officer, so I’ve been scanning the quarterly newsletters to see what posts were being advertised. Not having a car is quite a restriction – strapping a bag of cement to the bike rack is hardly a practical reality – but in December I saw that the position at Dibidil on the south coast of Rum was available, and in a moment of unnerving clarity thought this was the opportunity I was waiting for. No need for a motor when there is barely a kilometre of publicly accessible track on the island. An email exchange with the organisation confirmed that the post was still free, the only seemingly straight forward stipulation was attendance at the next area meeting. No problem I enthused I’ll be there.

Inevitably, there was a snag to proceedings because when I hastily opened the spring issue of the newsletter, the agreed location of the gathering was at Suardalan bothy, south of Shiel Bridge. I winced thinking about the logistics, as not only would this mean coming in from the west to avoid a hideous cycle along the stretch of the A87 from Invergarry, but there was also the small matter of the Mam Ratagan pass to negotiate, if I came in from Plockton or Kyle of Lochlash. This classic cycling test piece tops out at a hard earned 388m, and although I’d sweated up it three years ago while staying at Letterfearn, that was without the dead weight of my panniers.

Later that evening, having looked at the Scotrail timetable and taken account of the rather expensive advance fare prices, I hit upon a cunning plan. The alternative to the Mam Ratagan is heading over to Glenelg via the Kylerhea ferry, so I thought with a couple of extra days in hand I could take the Mallaig train and cycle through Skye, taking in a couple of bothy visits on the way. I wanted to get a shot of the train from Essan bothy between Glenfinnan and Lochailort, and also visit the recently openly new build at Camasunary. Done.

The reality was a hit and miss tale of happiness and woe, though this is of course, what I have come to expect. After a partially successful afternoon shoot, I slept in and missed the first train out to Mallaig. Not too much of a problem as I had already steeled myself for the cycle, though it did add twenty miles to my day. More frustratingly three sailings over to Armadale were cancelled due to unusually low neap tides, so I didn’t start off up the Sleat peninsula until after four. The rain had predictably set in by then, and I only got to Camasunary just before dark, replaying the decision to just turn over and have a snooze twelve hours earlier, as I slogged up the final step stretch on the north side of Loch Slappin. After a welcome morning chat with a laid back German guy walking the Skye Trail, I took some brooding shots of the Cuillin, and very efficiently made my way back to Broadford with plenty of time to spare. Here I took a closer inspection of the map and with typical blindness to elevation, realised that the pass over Glen Arroch and down to Kyle Rhea was only 50m lower than the Mam Ratagan! Psyched I took on the challenge in reasonable style, and even had an hour in hand to pop round to Glen Beag and take a couple of pictures of Dun Telve, an impressive broch which has withstood the passage of 3000 years since it was built in the Neolithic. A quick half in the Glenelg Inn and it was on to Suardalan and the Area Meeting, where I passed the secretive initiation and now have the proud title of probationary joint maintenance officer of Dibidil, Rum. I’m sharing my duties until I get an official hand over, and my new associate Dave gave me a very gratefully received lift back to Spean Bridge, thus avoiding the fearsome looking ascent back over to Broadford and on to the Mallaig ferry. Happy to put my feet up yesterday…

Essan bothy from the Mallaig train

A closer look

The quirky interior

Debris fished from the river

A moment of contemplation

Evening light

Champagne shot…Offsets the unfortunate deleting of my picture of the train while flicking through the photos on the journey back to Edinburgh. Doh! Back to capture the steam train later in the year as compensation.

Bothy humour

Loch Eilt on the walk out from Essan, still optimistic that I might make the train

Dawn at Camasunary

View of the new bothy and across the bay to Sgurr na Stri

Camasunary Bay with the Cuillin brooding in the background

View back to Beinn na Caillich and round to Glamaig from Glen Arroch

 

View across to Glen Elg from below Bealach Udal

The Kylerhea swing ferry

Well earned rest

Dun Telve, impressive broch in Glen Beag

Another quick pit stop

Arriving at Suardalan

Early morning shot of the bothy with Beinn Sgritheall in the background