It’s dark and I’m miles from anywhere in one of the Highland’s remotest glens, Glencoul, and the bothy in nowhere to be seen. It’s early November and winter is knocking at the door. It’s been raining and sleeting for the past couple of hours as I make my way down the valley and head to where I hope the bothy will be. I’m pretty wet, I had to wade across the last river. As the cold water buffeted against my legs and I searched the bank with my head torch for a place I could climb out, I reflect that crossing a river such as this, alone, in so remote a place is a wonderful way of focussing the mind.
A Different Country. Photo Paul Sammonds
Walking down the glen, water sloshing in my boots, I realise I have two options. Number one: I find the bothy, light the fire, and spend a comfortable and cosy night, warming my feet and congratulating myself on how clever I’ve been. Number two: fail to find the little shelter and spend a long, cold, wet night coming to terms with my own stupidity. The second option does not appeal and finding the bothy will become the sole aim in life over the next hour or so walking. Other considerations, such as earning enough to pay the mortgage, keeping my cholesterol down, writing my novel, are so far from my mind as to have, at least temporarily, ceased to exist. Instantaneously my life has become incredibly simple, the things that seemed important only a few hours ago no longer have any relevance. Mountains can do that, that is one of their charms, they have the power to distil the essence out of life. I have only one aim now which, put at its simplest, is to survive.
Only a few hours ago I was driving north from my home in Inverness and heading for Sutherland, perhaps the remotest corner of Scotland. I was later than I had intended. Somehow all those last minute things you have to do, stock up on gas, get some coal, buy more food had taken longer than I expected. I’d forgotten to buy dehydrated mashed potato, one of my hill staples, and so stopped in the small fishing village of Ullapool to get a packet. The village, with its seafront houses and coach tour hotels, always feels to me like a frontier town. The roads heading to the place from the south are broad and modern but once they pass through the village, turning inland and heading north towards Elphin and Lochinver, they revert to the twisting narrow tracks they once were, weaving their way between remote lochs and hills. It’s hardly surprising that the Vikings raided and settled here, given the villages obvious significance as a sheltered harbour. The name Ullapool betrays its Norse origins, it is derived from ‘Ulla-Bolstadr’ meaning ‘Ulla’s steading’. Heading out of the small supermarket with my dry vegetables under my arm, I notice that the wind has become colder and my jacket is speckled with rain as I climb back into the car. Here the local dress in warm, practical jackets and are already armoured against advancing winter with woolly hats and gloves. So different from their Invernessian counterparts, only just over an hour away, dressed in more fashionable clothes in the milder climate of the Highland’s capital “city.” I wonder what it must have been like here, over a thousand years ago, when longboats berthed where the Cal Mac ferry now rides at anchor. I doubt, to be honest, if things have changed that much. Ulla, and his mates no doubt made their way to the nearest hostelry with the same enthusiasm as the ferry passengers do today, fortunately modern tourists usually leave their battle axes at home.
Beyond Ullapool is a different country. As I pass through the few scattered houses that make up the township of Elphin the hills begin to rise around me. These are tough, rugged hills, they’ve been around for a while and have no intention of going anywhere. Their summits are armoured with bare rock interspersed with small pools and the odd peat bog, their flanks are lined with terraces. There are no car parks at the foot of these hills, no sign posts from the Right of Way Society reminding you to pack your sandwiches and wear clean underwear “just in case.” This is a little travelled world and once darkness comes it will be absolute. Snow dusts the summits as great clouds race across the sky turning the light across the landscape a steely grey. You have to watch the road now, if you take your eyes off it, it darts off unexpectedly round a bend and leaves you heading for a ditch.
I park my car on a hairpin bend. As I shoulder my pack and head off across the wilderness I know it’ll be dark before I reach the bothy but I’m confident I’ll be able to find it, even without the light. The map shows no track heading for the bothy but that can’t be right can it? There must be a path, it was probably just too faint for the Ordnance Survey to pick it up, I reason. The bothy should be easy to find. It’s that word “should” that niggles. It goes along with a collection of other words and phrases that have frequently been the precursors to disaster, words like: “no problem,” “easy,” “a piece of cake” and “what could possibly go wrong?”
The track leads across some precarious stepping stones that cross the river just as it emerges from Loch na Gainmhich a dark stretch of water about a half a mile in diameter. From there the path begins to climb and, as I gain height, the weather deteriorates. The clouds, that were once broken, have coalesced into a continuous rolling mass. Every few minutes a veil of rain, sleet and hail sweeps across the open hillside and batters against the back of my pack. An hour or so brings me to the watershed and I stand on the summit of the pass. Here I pause, undecided, ahead of me is wild country. This late in the year the northern days are short and the daylight is already beginning to loosen its grip. Then the clouds part and the landscape is unveiled before me, a vastness of hills and fjords stretching into a seeming infinity. The Stack of Glencoul, a stubby tower of rock, stands proud above the surrounding hills. I recognise the features I studied earlier on the map in the comfort of my centrally heated lounge. I am fascinated by maps, they fuel my imagination. The landscapes they reveal draw me in, showing me glimpses of places I have never seen. What would it be like, I wonder, to stand on that small bridge, to sit on the shore of that Highland loch, to wake in the morning and take in the view from that bothy? This map has brought me here, to this place. Behind me is an easy retreat to civilisation, the weather is breaking, perhaps turning back would be the wisest decision rather than heading into such uncertainty alone. Briefly the glen below me is illuminated by a shaft of sunlight, it feels so close and I have come so far, I think, to turn back now would be a disappointment and a defeat. After all, it’s all downhill from now, how hard can it be? (Add that phrase to those on the list at the end of the last paragraph.) Another phrase passes through my mind. “Go for it.”
A couple of hours later, saturated from wading across the swollen river, I am stumbling through tussocks of wet peat in the darkness in the floor of Glencoul. The map was right there is no path and progress is painfully slow. Now and again my head torch beam picks out a pair of glowing yellow eyes. I am walking through the bedrooms of herds of Red Deer, they stare at me for a moment or two before heading off into the darkness. Sometimes I pass by where they were standing only seconds before, they are so close I can small their wet hide and feel the warmth of their breath.
802, 803, 804. I count my steps. I’m close now, maybe less than half a mile but I know from bitter experience that, in the darkness , it’s east to pass within 20 meters of a bothy and never see it. I’m hugging the coast, here and there are strands of seaweed amongst the long grass, so this is no longer the riverside but the edge of the sea. This, I calculate, is where I should be. Now and again I cast my head torch beam up on to the hillside in case I am further on than I think and walking past the bothy. The little shelter is between me and the sea now, on a small promontory, If I miss it I should be able to double back and trap the place. There’s that word again, “should.” It’s late, I’m cold and wet, and “should” is not a word I want to hear. 804, 805, 806, the step counting helps, in such uneven terrain I know it’s wildly inaccurate but it does tell me one thing; I am not yet at the point where the path turns away from the sea and heads inland to the bothy. That’s the point I don’t want to miss, I daren’t overshoot. Looking at the map I notice that, close to the bothy, there are two small hillocks and the path passes between them. These I dub the Boobs of Glencoul, I’m aiming to pass right between them, to walk down their cleavage.
I reach 1,000 steps, now it’s maybe 100 meters or so to where the route I’ve planned should turn. My head torch beam picks out an old stone wall running seawards, it’s the first sign of civilisation I’ve seen for hours. Walls, I decide mean buildings, buildings mean warmth and food. I head up towards and obvious break. After a hundred meters the ground on either side of me begins to rise and, as the terrain begins to rise, so do my spirits, this feels right, I must be in the cleavage. Suddenly there’s a Land Rover track and a few meters beyond that the unmistakable outline of a building, I head for the bothy door. Yards from the bothy a stag steps onto the track ahead of me and roars a challenge, his breath clouding in the light from my torch. I’m alone, he’s bigger than me and has pointy things on his head. I’m too tired to worry now, I blunder on towards him, he’s between me and the bothy. Surely he’s bluffing, I hope, I know, I am. It turns out I’m the better poker player and he vanishes into the darkness. There, at last, bright in my head torch beam, is the white ellipse of the Mountain Bothy’s Association sign. I’m there, I’ve made it, now I wonder why I was so worried, after all, what could possibly go wrong.
Tomorrow I’ll have to find my way out, but that’s another day and, of course, another blog.