In September 2015 I drove the North Coast 500; this is day 3 of my adventure – Durness to Lochinver.
WHEN I’d booked in at the bed and breakfast the previous afternoon I was famished, so when the owner asked me what I’d like for breakfast in the morning and then offered porridge I’d immediately agreed. She’d then asked if I wanted a cooked breakfast to go with it and I also agreed to that; explaining, however, that I was a vegetarian but that I wasn’t a fussy eater. Eggs? Yes. Mushrooms? Yes. Beans? Yes. Tomato? Yes. Potato cakes? Yes. Toast? Yes.
The porridge was piping hot; and there was lots of it. I ate it all, and then realised the cooked breakfast was going to be a struggle. I poured a cup of tea – like that would help! And then the inevitable arrived; eggs, mushrooms, beans, tomato, potato cakes, toast. And somehow I ate it all, and then waddled back to my room to pack my bag.
My first port if call for the day was Smoo Cave at the other end of the village. According to Wikipedia, it’s unique within the UK in that the first chamber has been formed by the action of the sea, whereas the inner chambers are freshwater passages, formed from rainwater dissolving the carbonate dolostones. Partway through the cave the waters of Allt Smoo also drop in as a 65-feet high waterfall.
I then drove back across Durness and past the B&B and followed the road to Balnakeil. By now it was drizzling although thankfully it was still quite warm and very still, but it meant that I wouldn’t be able to have the roof down on the car.
What I hadn’t realised when I’d walked there the previous evening was that there was a graveyard and the ruins of the 8th century Balnakeil Church, which is a scheduled monument. In the dark it had looked like a very high wall.
The beach was gorgeous, stetching out in front of me in a long shallow arc; but not wanting to get my shoes covered in wet sand I decided against a walk to the other end of it and instead had a look around the churchyard.
With my brief daylight tour of Durness over it was time to drive to Lochinver. My route out of Durness was south on the A838, part of which would be alongside the Kyle of Durness, and at Laxford Bridge I’d then head right on the A894 to Scourie and then Kylesku Bridge. A few miles on from there I’d take the B869 towards Drumbeg and then to Lochinver.
Even though most of my 70-mile journey would be on A-roads, there would be long sections of single track with passing places, or roads barely wide enough for two cars.
Just after the last house in the village there was a national speed limit sign, the pavement ended, the Tarmac became a different shade and the road narrowed; although now and again it did return to single carriageway for brief periods. Low hills rolled on either side and in the distance were the mountains of Sutherland.
Very soon I was driving next to the Kyle of Durness and at Keoldale, if I had been really adventurous (and I’d planned well ahead) I could have taken the passenger ferry across the water and then a bus along the 11-mile track to Cape Wrath, Scotland’s most north westerly point and where the next landmass is the Arctic.
It’s also the end of the 200-mile Cape Wrath Trail which starts in Fort William, and it’s not a long-distance walk for the fainthearted. There are very few people (if any) for many miles meaning there are no shops or campsites or other luxuries such as a mobile phone signal. And it’s not waymarked. There is also the Cape Wrath Ultra which takes place each May and has to be completed in eight days.
Mile after mile I drove, the road slowly climbing and then descending, a boggy landscape on either side with Corbett hills beyond. Eventually I arrived at Rhiconich, where the road widened and a few miles to the right was Kinlochbervie, a working fishing port with a population of 480. I should have made a detour there but instead carried on to Laxford Bridge along a very well maintained single carriageway, presumably for the wagons heading to and from the harbour at Kinlochbervie.
The scenery had barely changed since Durness, but at Scourie I was met by well maintained houses with lush green lawns and well-tended shrubs and flowers. It was time for a break so I left the main road and headed to the pier and ate a packet of cheese and onion crisps.
I pressed on, keen to get to Kylesku Bridge. Eventually I saw my first real forest of the day, Duatmore, just beyond the loch of the same name which the road straddled before rising through the trees for a long twisting descent, with much of the road hewn through rock; and then, the bridge came into view.
I pulled over into the viewpoint for a look around and to take some photographs. Slightly behind me and across Loch á Chàirn Bhàin were the three Corbetts of Quinag; Sàil Ghorm, Spidean Coinich and the highest at 2,651ft Sàil Gharbh. Ahead of me and beyond the bridge were two more Corbetts, Beinn Leoid and Glas Bheinn; and further still – but slightly hidden in the clouds – the Munro of Ben More Assynt at 3,274ft.
The bridge was opened in 1984 by the Queen, and is 905 ft long and crosses a 430ft stretch of water. It is a curving, five-span, continuous, pre-stressed concrete, hollow structure and has apparently been described as one of the most beautiful bridges in the world.
A few minutes after Kylesku I came to Unapool, where just after that I’d be taking the twisting B869 that weaves its way around the coast to Lochinver. It was time for a cuppa though and luckily I spotted the North West Highlands Geopark Visitor Centre and its Rock Stop Café.
There are more than 100 of these in the Global Geoparks Network, and they are managed by the local community with the intention of “advancing the protection and use of geological heritage in a sustainable way, and promoting the economic well-being of the people who live there”.
I pulled into the car park, and grabbed my waterproof jacket from the boot of the car and made my way inside. Apart from café manager Tim (also the owner of Hamlet Mountaineering) I was the only one there; not surprising really as it had drizzled for most of the journey, the only respite being was when I stopped briefly at Scourie.
The visitor centre sits pretty much where Loch Glencoul and Loch Glendhu meet; and a large window looking out over the water gave magnificent views down the former – although not today as the clouds were sitting far too low.
I ordered a coffee and then chatted to Tim. When he’s wasn’t at the café he was out working as a mountain and water sport guide, and lived around 35 miles to the south west on the coast at Altandhu; that’s quite a commute, but what a glorious way to start the day. It could be problem in winter though.
Not far beyond the Geopark café was the right fork for the B869; a very minor turn with a brown coloured tourism sign stating Drumbeg, also known as An Droim Beag; the little ridge. The journey to Lochinver would be about 40 miles and with the vast majority of it on single track road.
Not far from the junction I passed over the Allt a Ghamhna as it made its way to the Loch a Cháirn Bháin. The road was perched between the steep hill of Torr na Caillich on the left and a sharp drop to Allt a Ghamhna on the right which eventually gave way to Loch a Cháirn Bháin, with only a small wall between the road and the drop, interspersed with several steep climbs and ascents.
At one point the road was so steep that I couldn’t see over the car’s bonnet and had to slow to a standstill and wind the windows down so I could hear if there was another vehicle approaching in the opposite direction.
Eventually the land levelled out and I made it to Drumbeg in one piece. Not far through the village, though, I was forced onto the gravel verge by quite a large delivery truck from “leading foodservice provider Bidvest 3663”. The driver could easily have pulled over into a passing place, but no; he just ploughed on towards me.
For mile after mile beyond Drumbeg I saw not much other than remote white painted houses perched on hillsides. Just who lives in those types of homes, and what do they do to earn a living? How do they cope with being so remote? It definitely takes a certain kind of person.
By the time I arrived at Clachtoll on the coast it had stopped raining so I turned off the road, drove through a deserted campsite and parked the car and then followed a sign pointing to the beach. The short walk down to the sand was along a deep-cut narrow sandy path giving no clue as to what to expect. And then, there it was; a beach of pure white sand and with the tide being party out I was able to walk on a large outcrop of rock that stretched a little way in to the bay. Bliss!
With my legs stretched, and slightly wishing that if the weather had been warmer I might have had a paddle (I doubt I’d have been brave enough for a swim) I made my way back to car; Lochinver was now just under 20 miles away.
From Clachtoll the road climbed, twisted and turned steadily until at the top of the final ascent near Lochan Sgeireach, the Assynt peaks of Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mor and Stac Pollaidh came into view. Magnificent.
Suilven was the one I wanted! I’d heard a lot about it; “a couple of hours walk and then a quick up and down” was how one friend had described it, and I had come prepared for any eventuality; I’d brought walking gear suitable for the week’s weather and clothing and equipment for long trail runs.
However, in truth the majestic Suilven was likely to be a minimum five-hour walk. I could run it, but that would mean carrying less spare clothing and food into unfamiliar (and very remote) territory. Either way, knowing how long I’d spent behind the steering wheel each day, walking up Suilven the next morning wasn’t an option unless I wanted to arrive at that evening’s destination – Plockton – in the dark. Suilven was for another day; it was just shame that I’d brought so much equipment with me, but better to be ready just in case.
I arrived in Lochinver in heavy drizzle, and drove along the loch front to the pier at the other end so I could get a “feel for the village”. I then put my satnav on and drove to my bed and breakfast, which was around the other side of the town and with views of Lochinver loch front.
I’m not going to name the B&B, all I will say is that I was disappointed with it. I’d booked it over the phone after searching on my mobile when I was in Inverness three days previously, so I had no idea what to expect. It had a feeling of being like a hostel with its cheap laminate flooring, drab rooms and separate toilet and shower; and by that I mean both were separate from my room, and both were separate from each other, and neither had windows. And it was cold. Perhaps I’d been spoilt the previous evening in Durness.
After a shower (separate from the toilet and separate from my room) I headed out. There seemed to be only one pub; the Caberfeidh, so I went there for some food (not macaroni cheese) and a drink and by the time I’d finished the drizzle had stopped; it was time for a walk about!
On my way into Lochinver I’d noticed a footpath sign where the new bridge crosses the River Inver adjacent to the village’s original stone one so I headed there. The path tracked the River Inver, which was very much in flood after the day’s rain. I followed the path for some time as it weaved its way up and down between trees, bushes and rocks.
Eventually I decided it was time to turn back; I didn’t have a map with me so I didn’t know where I’d end up, so I retraced my steps back to the road. When I got back home I looked at the Ordnance Survey map for the area on Bing Maps and found that if I’d carried on I could have looped around across the river and ended up almost where I’d started. Ah, well.
Back on the pavement, I headed into the village. Lochinver is definitely not a touristy place; in fact, it’s the second largest fishing port in Scotland, after Aberdeen, and it doesn’t have twee shops selling Tweed or Celtic jewellery or rune stones, in fact, it doesn’t really have many shops.
As I got near the fishing port I realised there was a trawler being unloaded, so I started walking towards it. What did seem odd was that I could just keep walking towards it, no gates to go through or security guards to stop me; so I carried on walking and ended up on the quayside next to a boat – the French-registered Jean Claude Coulon II – and watched the fish being unloaded.
However, all I could see were white crates going down a conveyor belt and into a warehouse; which is, probably, official known as a processing plant. At the other side of the warehouse/processing plant, as I found out later, were several articulated lorries, some from as far afield as France and Spain, being loaded by a single fork lift truck. It seemed like a very slick operation.
Excitement over, I headed back to the Caberfeidh for dessert and another drink before returning to my uninspiring B&B.
To be continued…