Caught the Shipping Forecast at 5.54am and it promised strengthening winds, heavy showers and more persistent rain coming in. Welcome to summer in Scotland.A h well….they are so often wrong, the Met Office (who have , as I write, just lost the contract to do the BBC’s weather forecast)
Got packed up after the usual breakfast of tea and more tea and a few pieces of fruit.Very sad to leave this spot – I get quite attached to our camping pitches and it was looking very lovely this morning but we had a B&B to look forward to tonight near Lochinver.
We really had no idea what to do – there were too many choices although with summit gales still forecast, the mountains were out.We’ve had too many experiences of strong winds on ridges to savour the prospect of fighting our way across rough, steep ground at 3,000 feet – it’s no pleasure and often quite frightening.
We meandered in the car to the Kyle of Durness to check out the Cape Wrath ferry at Keoldale and see what was happening there.Despite many visits to Durness, I had never been to Cape Wrath. Not sure how I managed to ignore that ‘tick list’ destination – the most north westerly point of the UK mainland. I had done absolutely no homework on the trip – usually, I have such things planned like a military campaign but our main objective of climbing mountains was pretty much written off now.
In fact, as we drove along the single track road to the ferry car park at 9.30am , it was already nearly full.We grabbed our rucksacks and wandered casually down to the jetty to find that most of Durness had had the same idea and there was a queue like an execution, which we joined.
You get to Cape Wrath by being ferried across the Kyle (5 min trip) then getting into a minibus that leaves when it has 16 passengers. Unless you walk or cycle the 11 miles, there is no other way. Even by bus, the road is so rough it takes an hour to cover this distance.
A bit bemused at the scene, I chatted to a couple who explained the crowds; the wind had cancelled yesterday’s trip and everyone had been told to turn up at 11am for the first crossing today. But the tiny motor boat ( seating 5 max ) was already plowing its way back across the choppy inlet having dropped the first group of would-be visitors off at the other side. There were already far more than 16 folk on the jetty so we weren’t all going to make it. Mumblings and grumblings began behind us. One couple bemoaned the fact that they had travelled from Germany no less, to see this famous spot. German efficiency was clearly no match for the ferryman deciding to get up a bit earlier that morning and start taking whoever was there two hours earlier. We had wandered into a maelstrom of tension and frustration in the peaceful and beautiful surroundings of the Kyle of Durness! A very bizarre start to the day.
The boat chap, a Harris man, seemed quite stressed by the sheer demand to get across and the Health and Safety nightmare of helping slip – prone tourists into a small wobbly boat . Apparently someone , earlier, had almost fallen between the boat and the jetty albeit into three feet of water. Someone ahead of us remarked nervously that there were no lifejackets. I half expected to see them about turn and leave; the Germans would have been delighted.We could all count and there were far too many of us to all get to Cape Wrath on the only trip going out this morning.
Even Mañana is a bit too rushed a concept to a Gael – my husband is one and I can vouch for that.The ferryman’s furrowed black brows in his weather beaten face said ‘these people are mad’ but he was doing his best. We made it – just- the last two people to get aboard and paid the £6 a head for the return 5 min crossing. A wad of £ notes looked in danger of being carried off by the wind off as he sorted out change while steering the boat at the same time. I recognised his very northern features – that mix of Gael and Celt – jet black brows, high cheekbones and ice blue eyes.Many of my mother’s family – Uist people – looked very much the same. His lovely Gaelic lilt was also familiar, the same as my husband’s. Gaels always recognise each other by the accent, eyes lighting up at a fellow Gaelic speaker , an immediate connection in a land which is trying to save this beautiful, lyrical language.
‘Come back in three hours!’ he shouted a couple of times to the disappointed crowd left behind.
Quite a nice spot at the other side as we clambered onto the pretty clapped out looking bus.It had seen better days.We paid the minibus driver £12 each and joined a silent cluster of fellow trippers; those first over would have been sitting in the bus for a good 45 mins by now.
And so the journey began on the UK’s only ‘U’ road meaning Unclassified.The area is owned by the MOD and used for target practice by NATO troops 6 weeks a year during April and October. Hence OS maps mark it as a Danger Area. Judging by the state of the road quite a few shells had gone off target. American fire, the driver winked to the couple from the USA beside him. It was no wonder a very ancient minibus was being used, rocking and pitching and bumping along; the road was atrocious.But the driver’s commentary was interesting and entertaining and proved that the old jokes are always the best. He had me laughing out loud a couple of times anyway.
We passed official sentry boxes, Victorian stone bridges and some beautiful views of the enormous sands around the headlands.But soon, we were crossing very empty, desolate moorland.
Contrary to its name, ‘Wrath’ does not mean angry but is an Anglicised corruption of the Gaelic word for ‘turning point’.So it is really the Cape of the Turning Point, which makes sense given it is the ‘corner’ where the Pentland Firth and Atlantic Ocean meet.Durness is also Anglicised from the Gaelic and means headland of the deer.The root of the word is similar to Jura which means deer island.
Finally, Robert Stevenson’s Lighthouse came into view and we caught a brief glimpse of Sandwood Bay, 8 miles away.
You get 50 minutes at Cape Wrath which is enough time to enjoy and admire this most wild place. I didn’t expect it to be quite so spectacular with sea stacks and arches and endless cliffs in each direction.Straight – winged fulmars cruised effortlessly past us at eye level. We stood on the fog horn platform and just drank it all in , this vast ocean where the Atlantic and the Pentland Firth meet and surge.
The Ozone Cafe is run by the only man who lives there all year round and a hard job he has too.There was a queue for soup and sandwiches and for getting postcards stamped ‘Cape Wrath.’ We gave up after a wait, deciding we’d rather enjoy the wonderful location than waste time in what to be honest is a fairly depressing interior. The buildings are not well kept. We did clamber up the Lighthouse itself and made it as far as the first floor before being told that it was only open to a private group (the Association of Lighthouse Keepers no less) which we’d inadvertently gate crashed. I wondered where the other minibus and all these other folk had come from.
There are no toilets at Cape Wrath so it’s a case of hiding behind one of the stone walls and hoping you get done before someone hops over and finds you in an undignified squat.
It was time to go and I chatted to a lone chap who told me he had been warned not to do the trip by companions he’d left behind near Lochinver. Bizarrely , he’d been told that it ‘wasn’t great’ up there (not sure if this meant the Cape or the whole area) and he was astonished at how wrong they had been.
It was a quieter bus on the way back, with a brief stop to let us photograph distant Kervaig bay, a beautiful beach where a bothy is maintained for anyone’s use. The Clo Mor cliffs are close by, the highest on the British mainland.
Sweeping above the final mile or so to the jetty, the Kyle of Durness’s magnificent sands revealed themselves, a superb sight.
We were amongst the first off the minibus at the jetty and four journeys would be needed to get us all back.We headed off the bus pretty quickly to make the first crossing, though most folk seemed happy to dawdle and take some final photos. The tide was well out by now and the boat briefly ‘touched bottom’ halfway across – no wonder such a small, shallow craft is used! There must be tides when it is impossible. In all we were around 3.75 hours for our trip. I wouldn’t do it again, having seen it, but I’m very glad we managed it this once. It was an adventure to a wild, lonely and spectacular corner of Scotland reached by the very few .
Kylesku Inn now beckoned, a beautiful place for lunch overlooking Loch Glencoul in an area with some of our finest mountains and grandest landscapes. It’s an empty, fast road for most of the way though your chances of driving it without many, many photo stops are slim.
I was slightly shocked at how the Inn had morphed into a large, pastel blue and white edifice as we sauntered through this sleepy, favourite spot. Gone was the traditional whitewashed building which fitted the landscape beautifully.It dominates this tiniest of places now and its design is quite Scandinavian, rather than Scottish.Not quite sure what I make of it but it is certainly lovely inside.The sun was making its usual afternoon appearance, kidding us on that summer was here before disappearing in the next weather front.
Langoustines for Chris, their signature dish for decades now and a huge bowl of Loch Glencoul mussels in white wine for me….they were really superb. A few of the 7/8 langoustines had been slightly overcooked (I’d originally thought they had been frozen) and had that slightly soft, watery texture. Not so good, given the nearly £20 cost. Great chips. It got chilly so we moved inside , amazed at the transformation of the characterful old Inn into this swish place.Oh, those views though. Big picture windows now to enjoy them fully. Ordered an apple crumble dessert but it was very disappointing.This also used to be one of their specialities…now it was just stewed fruit topped with granola topping. Not a proper crumble, yet more places are starting to do this.Why?? It’s one of the easiest desserts to make and one I do often at home.Save our crumble! However, Chris had made the right choice with ice cream and homemade honeycomb which was to die for. I did mention the crumble disappointment to the pleasant young waiter but you never truly expect they’ll take the constructive criticism back to the kitchen, despite him asking ‘how the food was.’ (I did write a trip advisor review of the Inn and got a reply back from the owner).
Ah well….two lunches in a row which, yes, had their faults but we still loved the experience. Location, location, location….it is just a joy to be in Kylesku, always.
It was 4pm by now and we were looking forward to Stac Fada and getting the car – and ourselves – tidied up a bit after 3 nights camping.The drive from Kylesku over the hill pass and down to Loch Assynt is a cracker – big mountain country and I prefer it to the coastal road through Drumbeg. It’s quicker to Lochinver, faster and with less tiring driving.
I kept looking up at the mountains and wondering if we should just have risked the climb but Chris was adamant that we were right to leave them well alone.The trouble was, they cleared, as they often do, late afternoon although the winds would still be raging on the summits no doubt.We never fancy starting off on a tough walk late in the day, despite the light nights.
As my husband wisely said, they will be there when we are long gone so there will be other times……..
Picked up a few supplies in Lochinver (translation – the loch of the river mouth) for a lightish tea later , then drove the tortuous but stunning single track to Stoer. Stopped at one of Assynt’s iconic viewpoints which, if clear, reveals the hinterland in all its lush, rocky, wild glory. In fact, we briefly explored a couple of decent camping pitches just a short walk above the parking area – what a panorama if clear. Sheltered, too.
Julie and Howard at Stac Fada gave us a warm welcome, slightly amazed that we had survived 3 bitterly cold nights in a tent on a beach. That was the thing about summer so far – it was still incredibly cold.Dropping to 3/4C at night and severe wind-chill during the day meant I was wandering about in 4 layers including a duvet jacket. I pretty much kept my waterproof trousers on all the time, just as an extra layer on my legs.In fact, they became so like a second skin I nearly fell asleep in them the night before: who says camping isn’t romantic?
The house was lovely and our room quite large and very attractive. A view out to sea too. All surrounded by a pretty garden, a real labour of love in this harsh landscape and climate.The house was all on its own yet walking distance to the shore.
Oh the joy of a hot shower, hair washed, aromatic soapy stuff and a comfy chair.Popped open our second bottle of champagne and toasted to our successful – mostly – trip so far, despite everything the forecast was trying to chuck at us.Ok the hills were out but everything else had been wonderful.
We snacked a bit and munched our way through Proscuitto, tomatoes and pickles , some Gouda cheese. A buttered French baguette.Very tasty. Memories of meals on our various balconies in southern Europe, though the temperature difference hardly bore thinking about.But there was nowhere I would rather have been at that moment than here, in Assynt.
The evening was still dry, though it didn’t look to last, so at 8pm with the sun trying to make an appearance we decided to venture out for a stroll.
Followed a sheep track beyond the garden and made our way over to Stoer beach, a favourite of mine but with at high tide, the big white sands are hidden and the recent storms had washed quite a bit of jetsam onto the pebbly shore.
It wasn’t looking its best so we headed onto the high ground to get a view of the Coigach mountains, tomorrow’s destination. Ben More Coigach was visible – a cracking mountain, a beautiful walk – and steep little Stac Polly and Cul Mor.
The sea was quite calm – before the storm I suppose – and suddenly Chris saw dolphins breaking the surface.They were well out – half a dozen of them or so – but what a thrill. Of course we’d left the birdscope in the B&B, typical, though they were travelling north and fast so we might not have had a very lasting view of them anyway.Wonderful sight though the photo is rubbish.But a lovely way to end another memorable day in the Far North West.
Next day: Leaving Assynt for Skye –