Since Shetland at the beginning of the long summer, there’ve been two constants to the travel undertaken for The Frayed Atlantic Edge. One is that the journey has taken place along coasts at sea level. At the start of December I'd break that habit by crossing the mountains of Wester Ross, at the shores of the narrow sea that is the Minch:
The second was that, somehow, strangely good weather had held beyond its season: since July, I’d experienced only hints at storms, whispers of gales & fleeting cloud cover. Here’s some Met Office data on the weird, kayak-friendly, summer-in-autumn of 2016 (thanks to Doug Griffin for sending me these):
But as I finished my mountain crossing & returned to sea level, that too ended: storms Barbara & Conor whipped up some vicious seas. Winds exceeded 100mph & snow, hail, rain & seafoam became transverse missiles for everything in their way. The knee-high breakers I’d come to know now towered overhead. Sculptural & solid, waves soared over stacks & skerries for so far & so long that they seemed to deserve names, titles or ASBOs:
They exploded onto land in tower-block high plumes:
And where they clashed at sea, the result felt full of the volition & rage of a drowned god:
Spending hours outdoors, in the kind of weather that pulls masonry from buildings & seems close to stripping flesh from bone was one more way of coming to appreciate what these seas can do, and how they’ve shaped Britain for millennia.
But the month began in stillness, silence & cold:
I had a long walk to do during December: Ullapool to Shieldaig via Scoraig, Dundonnell, Kinlochewe, Torridon & Diabaig, with as many mountains in between as I could find the time to lollop up. I decided to start slowly: these slopes were still snowless (I’d timed this leg for December in the hope of some snowy expanses to negotiate) and the last stretches are perhaps the part of Scotland I’ve wandered most frequently - despite their spectacular nature I’d feel little guilt at hurrying across them.
I set out with the first of three crossings by packraft – a 2kg inflatable boat that stows into the bottom of my rucksack - from the base of the lighthouse at Rhue (just northwest of Ullapool, at the mouth of Loch Broom).
From here I made the half mile crossing to the Scoraig Peninsula, climbed Beinn Ghobhlach & plunged down to Dundonnell. My views were of Scoraig village – one of Britain’s few off-grid communities, which plots its own particular path through modernity – and of the ‘destitution road’ built in an effort to alleviate potato famine in the 1840s. The weather on that first day was mixed (my camera spent most of its time stowed in its dry bag) but that of the two days ahead was simply unbelievable for December. My first clear night was among upland lochs after entering the bleak wastes of the Dundonnell deer forest:
I spent the evening in my sleeping bag reading a classic history of the drove roads that once crossed these landscapes, taking cattle south from the North West Highlands & Western Isles (Haldane's Drove Roads of Scotland), while I looked out onto an incredible starscape. Although the next morning was all dark ice & bright beauty…
…there was, in the glow of the early sun, a unique bleakness to bare black winter slopes with barely a snowpatch…
…but the same light - fire & ice - gave a kind of warmth to the rock towers of An Teallach:
I wandered the mountain for a few hours...
...taking in views along the western seaboard – from the Summer Isles, to the anthrax experiment sites of Guinard Island, down to Skye - as well as across my next few days’ wandering.
Beinn Dearg Mor (one of my favourite peaks)…
…and the rivers & hills of Fisherfield…
…would be my home for three days more. This stretch of land is astonishingly rugged. Known as ‘the great wilderness’, its steep ridges can often look uncrossable:
Paths are rare & bridges non-existent, making for exhilarating but challenging travel. From An Teallach I made my way down boulder fields & frosty slopes to the frozen glen of Strath na Sealga:
On the edge of the Strath is Shenavall Bothy, one of the most picturesque buildings in all Scotland. Despite being my one night under cover, this was actually the coldest night of the journey so far:
As the gloom set in, the glen's other occupants gathered round the bothy:
This building was 'finished' in November 1891, to serve as a stalkers' cottage for the Dundonnell estate. When the Macdonald family moved in next day its walls were unlined & its bare floor a mass of rubble. Glacial debris from nearby was used to finish off the family home. In the course of their ten year occupation, during which they carried out many improvements - building sheds & field systems that can be seen today - the family received provisions twice a year. These were brought by pony along the track I'd walked from An Teallach to Shenavall. They included oatmeal, paraffin, sugar, tea & once a year a roll of tweed in anticipation of an itinerant tailor who would cut the family's clothes. Most other provisions had to be grown, made from the milk of the family's four cows (butter, cheese, crowdie) or clipped from the strath's sheep & spun on the bothy's spinning wheel. The weather ruled here: in December 1895 so much snow fell that no-one could leave the strath until March. The crack that, in April, finally broke the ice atop the six-mile-long loch was said to have been the loudest noise anyone in the strath that day would hear all their lives.
Next morning I had rivers to negotiate, the first two of which I'd photographed in the sun the previous afternoon:
These crossings are a major reason why the great wilderness always seems so empty in winter. Guessing how deep & fast they’ll be isn’t always easy, and, forced to attempt them in adverse conditions, several walkers have lost their lives here (though I think the last deaths were now over a decade ago). Fortunately, both rivers were low enough to wade with ease, after crunching through the ice at their edges…
…but there was a price to be paid for the crossing: icy wet feet that wouldn’t dry out for two days. This morning low cloud had swept in, giving a dreary feel to the chill trudge...
...and a profound gloom to the craggy peaks:
I wanted my route to take me across as many tops as possible – seeking both seaward views and birds’ eye perspectives on the landscape. This would make the journey far longer than it needed to be. By the time I was on top of Beinn Dearg Mor, ready to plunge downward towards Ruadh Stac Mor then across to Beinn Tarsuinn…
…the weather had closed in dramatically & there was no way of taking pictures without a rain-spattered lens. I had a new camera for this month’s travel. When my usual one needed to be sent away to have some salt-water damage seen to, I decided it was time I owned both a cheapish sea camera (I've never before dared buy a camera costing more than £300, always anticipating its demise in the Atlantic) and a higher-end camera for photos from the land, the excuse being that I need to make the pictures for the book as good as possible… But I was still, at this stage, reluctant to risk using the new one in rain.
The rest of the Fisherfield crossing was spectacularly dreary. Sleeping through a 16 hour night on a dank shoulder of Beinn Tarsuinn, with just a rough boulder for shelter from the constant downpour, I’ve never wished for a tent so intensely. There were none of Beinn Tarsuinn's usual views across mountains whose geological bones protrude through their thin skins:
It was in mist and rising winds that I made the quick trot down from Tarsuinn to Lochan Fada at first light (if it could really be called light) and crossed towards the low slopes of Slioch. My previous winter dawns in this area have all been rather snowier:
The plan had involved climbing Slioch for one last ocean vista before Kinlochewe, but with cloud low I headed straight for the north shore of Loch Maree & wandered north west. I was seeking remains of one of Scotland’s first ironworks & of the settlement of Letterewe both of which, in this region without roads or buildings, feel distinctly out of place – they were the clearest signs so far of the rich, connected histories of places that can now feel remote.
After a night on the north shore & a rain-soaked investigation of the remains I inflated the packraft, assembled my 4-piece paddle, and crossed the loch, passing south of the famous holy islands and arriving at the beginning of the steep track onto Beinn Eighe & into Torridon. The existence of this track – a key feature of the first National Nature Reserve in Scotland – on the opposite bank of Loch Maree from the seventeenth-century ironworks gives the impression that this glen encapsulates three centuries of development in the highlands. The north shore, with good brown forest soils, would have been densely treed before the mass burning of wood for iron; the trees of the south shore are now a valuable commodity, nurtured as a remnant of the highlands' aboriginal forest.
The next stage of the journey had the potential to be one of the best. Torridon in winter is heaven:
But, for now, I'd reached the end of my leash: I had several days of 'everyday life' to attend to back in Birmingham. I called my lift back to my start, then gradually dried out as I made the long drive south thinking about my themes for the first mountain chapter of the book.
After a few days of everything from PhD supervisions to weddings, Llinos & I headed back north. I’d hoped to cross from Kinlochewe to Shieldaig in the last few days of December, but the spectacular storms of the Christmas period made it far more attractive to hunker down in our favourite salmon fishers’ bothy a little further north (Badentarbet Bay on Coigach). Here's Llinos in the doorway with the Summer Isles in the background:
An Teallach, the Fisherfield hills & Torridon were visible in rare moments when cloud lifted (this taken from inside the bothy):
Closer to home are the wonderful hills & lochs of Assynt:
...and sightings of the black cattle (the creatures of the drove roads), once favoured here rather than today's red highland coos:
I’d been thinking a lot about the histories of deer forests in the wander across Fisherfield, and had been reading memoirs by some of the strange, blood-soaked characters who’d stalked deer there in the nineteenth & twentieth centuries. One morning we spotted a golden eagle on the hillside (we’ve never seen one up in Coigach before) but in the rain & gloom my pics, when I finally reached the camera, were useless:
It took us a while to realise the eagle had been perched on the exposed rib cage, then the antlers, of a huge stag carcass. I didn’t approach the body for a few days, while ravens, gulls & buzzards fed on it. But eventually I collected its eagle-perch antlers & took some photos, most of which are probably a bit gory to put up here. Its inner workings were spectacular, and the clumps of eagle-plucked fur were strewn metres around. I’ll make the one photo I do upload small, for those who’d rather not see it, but click on the image if you do want to:
The storms were a wonderful opportunity to learn more about local seas.
Just before Christmas I'd bought a sea picture - a stunning anatomy of a wave by the photographer Rachael Talibart - for the wall of our new house. While kept from kayaking by the storms, I was determined to start learning how to get my own incompetent versions of such photos. So during Christmas, we ate & drank on phenomenal scales through the long hours of dark, but used short spells of low sun to taste a little of the ocean’s violence. These were coastlines I’d paddled the previous month; now that thought was terrifying. We looked down on the sea from Stoer, our bodies held upright by immense walls of wind:
But really, I wanted to be in among the waves, as in Talibart's pictures. At Clachtoll beach I lodged myself in the rocks as the tide came in, photographing waves until they broke around me & attempted to wrest me from my vantage. More than once, floods of churning milky sea swept up around my knees, soaking me through, as I shielded the camera from spray:
We watched gulls & skuas negotiate monumental waves to scavenge snacks the storm had snatched from the seabed:
We had a white Christmas, eating dinner on the beach where sea foam fell from the sky like snow & Christmas hats had to be held in place:
And at Reiff & Dornie, we looked up into the conflagration, wishing we had the courage to paddle out from the shelter of the bay:
The bothy was an ideal place to read some wonderful books on lesser known aspects of the region's history, such as Timothy Neat’s history of the Gaelic travellers of the far north, The Summer Walkers: Travelling People and Pearl-Fishers in the Highlands of Scotland. And the various festivities at the wonderful ship-inspired Achiltibuie Community Hall...
...as well as hogmanay at the Summer Isles Hotel, ending, as is compulsory, with pipes in a car park...
...were a fantastic way to remake some old acquaintances and meet new people in the places I need to research. So there were advantages to the sustained grim weather, the downside being that I still haven’t crossed Torridon. January – it seems – will bring both mountain crossings & as many miles of a long kayak (from Shieldaig to Arisaig via the west coast of Skye and the Small Isles) as short days & winter weather permit…